Point of View: Witnessing history

Zach Hrinuk ’18, who traveled to South Korea with the NBC team for the Winter Olympic Games earlier this year, offers some insights into the complicated relationship between North and South Korea.

By Zach Hrinuk ’18

When I found out I would be traveling to South Korea with the NBC team for the Winter Olympic Games, I was a little nervous. I was going to the other end of the world on my first overseas trip to a region that seemed to be on the brink of war. Luckily for me, tensions softened in the first few days of 2018 when North Korea officials met with the International Olympic Committee and we learned North Korea and South Korea would make history and participate in the games as one Korea, united under one flag. The South Koreans even agreed to foot the nearly $3 million bill for the North Korean delegation’s Olympic appearance. I realized then I would be witnessing history.

Prior to leaving for the Olympics, my uncle showed me videos of the border between North and South Korea and the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ for short—the no-fire buffer zone between the two countries that stretches coast to coast on the Korean Peninsula. My 90-year-old grandfather fought in the Korean War and lived in the same area where I was housed during the Olympics. Having heard his stories as a child, I knew I wanted to visit the border. My work schedule didn’t give me much down time but my boss was gracious enough to let me take a trip to get a glimpse of North Korea. I had to provide my passport information several days in advance so that the governments could run a background check. As a member of the media, I traveled in a coach bus to the border.

Upon arriving at the DMZ, we were given very strict orders concerning photography and gathering of information in the region. Soldiers came on the bus to identify who we were and remained there while we moved into the DMZ. As we drove, our English-speaking guide informed us that just off the driving path were many landmine bombs left from the war, which could go off at any time if someone were to venture into the areas marked with a red flag. When it came time to go to North Korea, we had to leave our cell phones and possessions on the bus before walking to take a glimpse of the hermit nation. It was a surreal experience to see the North Korean structures, soldiers and flags blowing in the wind. In the distance, we could see a building on a mountain from where Kim Jong Un recently watched one of his missile launches toward Japan.

You may have heard stories about the two countries blasting music out of speakers at each other near the border. Those stories are true. On the South Korean side, massive speakers blast K-Pop music at the North Korean soldiers. The North responds with anti-American propaganda music and chants. Neither country has their speaker on when the other has theirs off. One of the South Korean soldiers I was with said they enjoy picking the music. During my visit, the music selection was a mixture of pop and rap music. The visit allowed me to fully comprehend my grandfather’s stories and to understand the Korean War’s impact on the region.

During the parade of nations as part of the games’ opening ceremonies, the North and South Korean delegations marched out together under one flag. An athlete from each country was carrying the flag, followed by athletes from both countries. When they entered the stadium, the stands erupted in cheers. Several seat sections to the left of me was the Olympic Delegation box where U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, all sat together, only inches apart. It was an encounter only made possible by this incredible event.

The Korean people are some of the nicest individuals I have ever met. Even when there was a language barrier, the countless volunteers at the Olympic venues and in Gangneung Olympic Park always smiled and were excited to meet people from all over the world. One particular volunteer who I grew to know during my time there gave me stationery that had my name and job title handwritten in Korean. I was lucky to have a translator named Ann who was a South Korean native from Seoul (the PyeongChang region is a more rural area where very few natives speak English). She explained South Koreans don’t feel hostility toward the people of the North. They welcome them and think about them often. Many South Koreans have relatives in the North that they have not heard from in a long time or even know if they are alive. Ann told me they are hopeful for the future on the Korean Peninsula and that there would be peace. I left the country hoping for the same.

The Koreans left a lasting impact on me and I hope my American colleagues and I left a positive and lasting impact on them.

A journalism major, Zach Hrinuk ’18 finished his studies early so he could attend the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games in February. He traveledto South Korea after landing an internship as production associate and runnerfor NBC Olympics. He is now based in New Jersey.