PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The overtly political 2018 Winter Olympics closed Sunday night very much as they began, with humanity’s finest athletes marching exuberantly across the world stage as three nations with decades of war and suspicion among them shared a VIP box — and a potential path away from conflict.
Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump sat in two rows of seats behind the Olympic rings, meant to represent a competition of peace and international unity. In close proximity — though with no apparent communication between Trump and Kim — they watched a spirited, elaborate show that concluded the Pyeongchang Games.
Even as dancers performed cultural stories to music before a huge crowd, South Korea’s presidential office released a brief statement saying that Pyongyang had expressed willingness to hold talks with Washington.
The North has “ample intentions of holding talks with the United States,” according to the office. The North’s delegation also agreed that “South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together,” Moon’s office, known as the Blue House, said.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, just before declaring the games closed, addressed the two Koreas’ cooperation at the closing ceremony, saying, “The Olympic games are an homage to the past and an act of faith for the future.”
“With your joint march you have shared your faith in a peaceful future with all of us,” Bach said. “You have shown our sport brings people together in our very fragile world. You have shown how sport builds bridges.”
It was all an extraordinary bookend to an extraordinary Olympics that featured athletic excellence, surprises and unexpected lurches forward toward a new detente on the Korean Peninsula. Thrilled athletes marched into the arena around the world’s flags, relaxed after showing their athletic best to themselves and to the world.
“We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail,” said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women’s curling team, which captured global renown as the “Garlic Girls” — all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.
That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.
But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga — or opportunity, if you prefer — of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by bloodshed and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.
The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon’s government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world — and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.
Also watching was an equally extraordinary, if motley, crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea’s nuclear program, didn’t speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.
What followed was a strong dose of athletic diplomacy: two weeks of global exposure for the Korean team, particularly the women’s hockey squad, which trained for weeks with North and South side by side getting along, taking selfies and learning about each other.
On Sunday night, though K-pop megastars EXO claimed center stage, leaders rejoined athletes as a primary focus.
Kim, President Donald Trump’s daughter and Moon sat in close proximity as the Olympics’ end unfolded before them and the statement was released in Seoul. Also seated nearby was Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. forces Korea. Unlike Pence, Ivanka Trump was smiling as she turned in the North Koreans’ direction. It was not clear what she was smiling at, but a White House official said it was not the North Koreans.
The developments Sunday both inside and outside the VIP box were particularly striking given that Kim Yong Chol, now vice chairman of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party Central Committee, is suspected of masterminding a lethal 2010 military attack on the South.
Outside the stadium, North Korea was not welcomed as much.
More than 200 anti-Pyongyang protesters, waving South Korean and U.S. flags, banging drums and holding signs like “Killer Kim Yong Chol go to hell,” rallied in streets near the park. They denounced the South Korean government’s decision to allow the visit. There were no major clashes.
That wasn’t all when it came to these odd games. Let’s not forget Russia — or, we should say, “Olympic Athletes from Russia,” the shame-laced moniker they inherited after a doping brouhaha from the 2014 Sochi Games doomed them to a non-flag-carrying Pyeongchang Games.
Two more Russian athletes tested positive in Pyeongchang in the past two weeks. So on Sunday morning, the IOC refused to reinstate the team in time for the closing but left the door open for near-term redemption from what one exasperated committee member called “this entire Russia drama.”
Away from the politics, humanity’s most extraordinary feats of winter athletic prowess unfolded, revealing the expected triumphs but also stars most unlikely — from favorites like Mikaela Shiffrin, Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn to sudden surprise legends like Czech skier-snowboarder Ester Ledecka and the medal-grabbing “Garlic Girls,” South Korea’s hometown curling favorites.
Other Olympic trailblazers: Chloe Kim, American snowboarder extraordinaire. The U.S. women’s hockey team and men’s curlers, both of which claimed gold. And the Russian hockey team, with its nail-biting, overtime victory against Germany.
What’s next for the games? Tokyo in Summer 2020, then Beijing — Summer host in 2008 — staging an encore, this time for a Winter Games. With the completion of the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, that Olympic trinity marks one-third of a noteworthy Olympic run by Asia.
For those keeping score at home: That means four of eight Olympic Games between 2008 and 2022 will have taken place on the Asian continent. Not bad for a region that hosted only four games in the 112 years of modern Olympic history before that — Tokyo in 1964, Sapporo in 1972, Seoul in 1988 and Nagano in 1998. Japan and China will, it’s likely, be highly motivated to outdo South Korea (and each other).
Meantime, the Olympians departing Monday leave behind a Korean Peninsula full of possibility for peace, or at least less hostility.
The steps taken by North and South toward each other this month are formidable but fluid. People are cautiously optimistic: the governor of Gangwon, the border province where Pyeongchang is located, suggested Sunday that the 2021 Asian Games could be co-hosted by both Koreas.
It might not happen. But it could. That could be said about pretty much anything at an Olympic Games, inside the rings and out. Corporate and political and regimented though it may be, that’s what makes it still the best game in town for an athletic thrill every other year — and yes, sometimes a political one, too.
As some high school students face the threat of disciplinary action for participating in gun control demonstrations, dozens of colleges and universities are sending them a reassuring message: It won’t affect their chances of getting into their schools.
Nearly 50 schools, from Ivy Leaguers to public institutions, have taken to social media over the past few days to reassure students that taking part would not jeopardize admissions consideration.
Wake Forest University issued a statement over the weekend from its President Nathan Hatch addressing applicants who choose to participate in peaceful protest in response to the events in Parkland, Fla.
“Your actions will have no adverse effect on your application to our university,” Hatch said.
“Further, we applaud your courage and dedication in trying to seek a civil dialogue aimed at bringing a reasonable solution to one of our nation’s most divisive issues.”
“We believe in your passion, your resolve and your willingness to engage in thoughtful conversation. At the heart of a Wake Forest education is the ability to tackle our society’s most complex problems, together as one community committed to a common good. Your example is an inspiration to us all, and we support you fully. It is our great hope that we can restore the spirit of open dialogue and conversation about those issues that matter deeply to all our citizens.”
Yale University said on its Twitter account that it would not rescind admissions decisions regardless of any penalties imposed on students by high school administrators. Brown University’s admissions staff also promised no negative fallout for any applicants.
Other institutions applauded the teenagers’ activism.
“UCLA is a community that supports active citizenship and applauds students’ expression of their beliefs,” the school’s admissions office tweeted. “UCLA stands with you.”
Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., tweeted, “Brandeis supports students’ right to stand up for their beliefs ... Speak up, speak out.”
The Feb. 14 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 people dead has sparked calls for walkouts, sit-ins and other actions on school campuses across the U.S.
A Texas school superintendent said this week that students faced a three-day, out-of-school suspension if they joined the protests. Needville ISD Superintendent Curtis Rhodes said the Houston-area district is sensitive to school violence, but is focused on education, not political protests.
A school district in Milwaukee, Wis., initially said that students would face some sort of punishment if they took part in a planned March 14 walkout, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Waukesha School District Superintendent Todd Gray later softened his stance, saying students could be excused with parental consent.
Other school districts in the area have taken similar approaches.
Buzzfeed first reported the messages being posted by the college admissions offices.
Hatch further said that “it is time for courage and time for compromise. And it is time for real conversation in which every idea and every person is taken seriously. We stand with you as you seek the truth and endeavor to make this a more perfect union.”
Katie Neal, a WFU spokeswoman, said Sunday night that Hatch’s statement “aligned with our values in support of free speech and civil dialogue for the common good.”
Since the deadly shooting at a Florida high school last week, the Winston-Salem and Forsyth County school system has seen an increase in reports of social media posts and activity believed to be threatening in nature.
However, school and law enforcement officials said none of these threats have been deemed credible — many of them misinterpreted actions or social media behavior that is in poor taste.
“I can tell you with absolute certainty we have seen no credible threat in our investigations,” said Jonathan Wilson, security director for WS/FCS.
State and nationwide, there have been multiple reports of threats of school shootings in the wake of one that took the lives of 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
A 19-year-old former student went on campus Feb. 14 with an AR-15 rifle, and was later apprehended by law enforcement away from the school.
WS/FCS, as well as other school districts, has practices in place for school administrators, school resource officers and local law enforcement to assess threats that are reported to them.
And since the shooting, there have been more threat assessments and investigations than normal, Wilson said.
“We are continuing to see irresponsible posts, kids not thinking before they put something out, thinking that something’s a joke,” he said.
Lt. Tom Peterson, who oversees the SROs for WS/FCS schools in Winston-Salem city limits, said since the Florida shooting there had been 19 school threats reported. All 19 came from within the schools and were made in middle and high schools — none from elementary schools, he said.
Peterson added these 19 are only from WS/FCS schools in the Winston-Salem city limits. Data for other schools in Forsyth County was requested but was not readily available.
Wilson said a lot of what they’re seeing district-wide are “bad jokes” posted online, or someone overhearing and misinterpreting a conversation.
But while there has been an increase in reported threats and none of them have been deemed credible, Wilson said that he wants people to continue to report activity they feel could be serious.
In all cases, Wilson said the schools and law enforcement are in constant communication with each other to investigate and assess reported threats.
“Every threat and rumor is investigated thoroughly” by school officials and law enforcement, he said.
In response to a racially insensitive Snapchat video involving an R.J. Reynolds High School student Feb. 9, school district Superintendent Beverly Emory sent a memo to students shortly after that included tips for responsible social media use. The suggestions included thinking before posting and a reminder that even private social media posts can easily be made public.
Wilson reiterated some of those points, and added an emphasis on parents’ awareness into what their kids are posting online.
“Think about how it’s going to be interpreted, think about the long-term effects,” he said.
Consolidating the county’s social services and public health agencies may be the way to go for more efficiency, several Forsyth County commissioners said.
“I see nothing but an upside on consolidation,” Commissioner Don Martin said during the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners’ winter work session on Thursday.
He believes that the agencies’ clients would notice improvements with the change.
Lanier Cansler, the chief executive of Cansler Collaborative Resources, talked about how statewide law changes might affect Forsyth County.
His company did a recent study for Forsyth County, exploring opportunities for county human services restructuring based on legislative authority granted to counties in North Carolina in 2012.
The state law gave county commissioners more flexibility in the type of organizational models used to provide human services programs.
N.C. House Bill 630, enacted during the 2017 N.C. General Assembly session, addresses various social services topics, including social services system reform. Social Services Regional Supervision and Collaboration Working Group was formed to make recommendations to DHHS regarding establishing a regional supervision and collaboration plan.
“In this process, they are putting a lot more responsibility and accountability on the counties,” Cansler said.
The study by Cansler Collaborative Resources recommends that commissioners create an independent consolidated human services board whose membership would reflect health, social services and consumers, as well as create a consolidated human services agency. The county manager would have authority to hire and fire the director of the combined agency with the advice and consent of the consolidated board.
In interviews, Commissioners Richard Linville and Gloria Whisenhunt gave their views on a possible consolidation of DSS and public health.
Linville said that he wants more discussion between the commissioners before making a decision.
“If there was consolidation, it gives the county manager more control over social services,” he said.
Whisenhunt is in favor of consolidating the two agencies, saying that DSS and public health should be partners.
“They are on the same campus,” Whisenhunt said. “They need to be working together. I think it can solve so many problems in our community.”
She said that the county manager or assistant county manager should be over the consolidated human services agency.