John Pennell

World News


The Garlic Girls and Why South Korean Nationalism is a Bad Thing

Even before the two weeks of the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the media carefully cultivated captivating stories for its audience. These stories were quite powerful in their ability to make us emote—to make us share in athletes’ feelings of triumph—and one simply cannot ignore these human-interest stories, but what often happens is that politics are removed from the telling of such stories. There are some who believe that athletics and politics should be separated—that the Olympics are supposed to be a time where the world can gather and compete in sports while putting politics aside. On the other hand, others believe that athletics and politics are not inherently mutually exclusive.

One such human-interest story that cannot and should not be divorced from its link to international politics: the five members of the South Korean women’s curling team AKA the “Garlic Girls” (though they prefer “Team Kim”) winning a silver medal at the Games hosted in their home country.

The rise in fame of this team over the course of the women’s curling event at the Games, coupled with their win against Japan in the semifinals, is an indication of South Korean nationalism in the face of an enduring, complicated, and sometimes strained, relationship with Japan. Strong South Korean nationalism is an indication that a cooperative solution—that is, one that South Korea, Japan, and the US can all agree to—to the North Korean nuclearization question is not on the horizon in the near future.

These five women—all having the surname Kim and all from Uiseong County, North Gyeongsang Province, a place known for growing garlic—have swiftly gained the attention of international and domestic audiences alike, though their viral, meme-generating fame in South Korea far eclipses their international fame (just watch this news report on a cute video uploaded to YouTube parodying Team Kim).

Originally called the underdogs of the Games’ women’s curling event, they overcame expectations that they would not even move on from the initial round robin tournament to the semifinal matches. In fact, the team finished first in the round robin and had lost only once against Japan in this stage of the competition. Perhaps it is fitting then that the team secured either a gold or silver medal due to a sudden death victory against Japan in a semifinal match.

One factor that made the depoliticizing of these games difficult was the issue of North Korean nuclearization. It is safe to say that most people have heard of the threat North Korea poses to America and American allies’ national security, and if you have not. One major roadblock in the path to a denuclearized North Korea has always been the lack of coordination between South Korea, Japan, and the US. While South Korea and Japan are both allies of the US, they are not necessarily allies of each other.

North and South Korean athletes marching under a unification flag. (Andy Miah)

The fact that certain countries are allies does not therefore imply harmonious cooperation between the two, and an example of this would be the current administration in South Korea, which takes a more conciliatory stance on North Korea in contrast to the United States’ stauncher stance against North Korea. However, the rocky relationship between South Korea and Japan is not without justification though, as Japan colonized South Korea for part of the twentieth century. In particular, one disagreement between the two countries is Japan’s use of “comfort women,” women forced into prostitution in service of imperial Japan’s armed forces, and though the issue was indefinitely resolved in 2015, it still remains a contentious issue.

While the Garlic Girls deserve every moment of support and attention for how they did at these Games, it is difficult to not interpret their initial loss and subsequent victory over the Japanese team as a microcosm of the relationship between South Korea and Japan. Advocates of sport as an explicitly apolitical arena would find this purposefully political interpretation of this situation off-putting, and they would probably argue that I am detracting from the South Korean team’s achievements.

I would counter that for South Korea bidding, planning and finally hosting these Games has all been inherently political and a source of debate. Adding North Korea into the equation then turned these Games into the most significant test South Korean President Moon Jae-in had faced in his term in office, highlighted by his lowest approval ratings because of a joint Korea women’s ice hockey team and a rebound due to a sense of rapprochement between the two Koreas.

International sports in South Korea, by design is political. Most South Korean males between 18-35 years of age must complete about two years of mandatory military service, but this requirement is significantly reduced for men who earn an Olympic medal or an Asian Games gold medal. Though this policy applies only towards male conscripts, the logic still follows that if extraordinary athletic performance at the international level is equated to national service, then the Garlic Girls’ victory is an indication that they have fulfilled their “national service” as athletes to bring glory to their homeland—making South Korea stand out in the view of other countries. Though there was no external expressions of antagonism towards the Japanese women’s curling team, the enthusiasm supporting Team Kim over the course of the Olympics indicates a strong public acceptance of the prescription of greatness in sport as love for country.

The South Korean women’s curling team is a salient reminder of the reality of South Korean national security—that it is an underdog in a region of great powers. The fact that the current South Korean administration differs greatly with Japan on the North Korean issue should come as no surprise, since the close nature of America’s bilateral relations with its North East Asian allies does not extend to the relations between the allies, and we are reminded of this every time a South Korean athlete goes up against a Japanese athlete.