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Don't Mention Nukes: South Korean Olympic Hosts Learn How to Talk to the North Korean Enemy as Leaders Prepare for Discussions

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North Korean cheerleaders arrive at a rest stop as their bus convoy carrying a 280-member delegation on its way to the 2018 Pyeongchang winter Olympic games, makes its way past Gapyeong on February 7, 2018. Getty Images

When a hotel on South Korea’s east coast was asked at short notice to host nearly 280 North Korean visitors, the problem wasn’t finding enough rooms.

It was learning how not to offend them.

Within days of the request, the roughly 150 staff of the four-star Inje Speedium Hotel & Resort were attending sessions on North Korean words and manners, one of which was taught by a professor who used to teach defectors from the North.

Their guests, who checked in on Wednesday, are North Korean cheerleaders who have come to perform at the winter Games in Pyeongchang, about 50 miles from the border, one of the world’s most heavily militarized frontiers.

Since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, the two sides have grown culturally and linguistically apart, deepening the political gulf that had initially separated the poor, one-party state in the north from the rich, democratic south.

First rule: in the presence of guests, do not refer to their leader, Kim Jong Un, by name, or certainly do not mention his nuclear and missile programs.

And don’t even point at badges depicting the North’s former leaders which are pinned to every North Korean visitor’s chest. In fact, call them “portraits”, not badges.

That is some of the advice Kim Young-soo, a professor at Sogang University in Seoul, gave staff at the hotel.

“The two Koreas may have the same ethnic background, but have gone totally separate ways for such a long time without barely any interaction, so there can be misunderstandings over trivial things,” he told Reuters.

A separate one-page cheat sheet provided by Inje Speedium to its staff points out that North Koreans don’t use English words like shampoo and conditioner, which are used in the South.

The North also has words for food and everyday necessities that sound completely different to those used in the South.

The sheet included word comparisons for commonly used goods and services, a hotel official said. For example, vegetable is called “chaeso” in the South and “namsae” in the North.

“Our training, which included the lecture as well as our one-page guidelines, was aimed at preventing any potential conflicts that could arise from cultural differences,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Ahead of the Games, which formally opened on Friday, South Korea’s government distributed guidelines to organizers, listing do’s and don‘t’s when they meet North Koreans, an official at the Pyeongchang organizing committee told Reuters.

North and South Korea speak the same language based on the Hangeul alphabet, but differences have emerged since the 1950-53 conflict which left the two sides at a technical state of war.

The differences are particularly challenging for women ice hockey players from the two Koreas who were asked just a few weeks ago to compete as one nation, the Canadian head coach of the joint team, Sarah Murray, told a news conference on Sunday.

There are “three” languages in one team, she said, referring to English, South Korean and North Korean. South Koreans frequently used English words not understood by the northerners.

“For our team meetings it is going through to English to South Korean to North Korean. So the meetings take three times as long,” Murray said.

The team has compiled its own “dictionary” of different ice hockey terms to better communicate with each other, she said.

Choi Bok-mu, a fitness club manager at the Olympics athletes village in Gangneung, said he had not experienced any problems communicating with North Korean athletes, despite them speaking in a markedly different accent.

“Is it really that different from speaking to someone from another region in South Korea? I don’t think so,” said Choi, a volunteer who normally works as a fire station official.

Choi and other volunteer helpers at the Games were urged to avoid the topic that another Olympics guest, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, has been eager to address in his public remarks ahead of the opening ceremony: North Korea’s arms program.

“We’ve been told not to talk about nukes or missiles before we came here,” Choi said. 

As the Olympics get underway, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited South Korean President Moon Jae-in for talks in Pyongyang, setting the stage for the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than 10 years.

Any meeting would represent a diplomatic coup for Moon, who swept to power last year on a policy of engaging more with the reclusive North.

The recent detente, anchored by South Korea’s hosting of the Winter Olympic Games that began on Friday, came despite an acceleration in the North’s weapons program last year and pressure from Seoul’s allies in Washington.

The personal invitation from Kim was delivered by his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, during talks and a lunch Moon hosted at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Kim Jong Un wanted to meet Moon “at an early date” and Moon had said “let’s create conditions to make it happen”, Blue House spokesman Kim Eui-kyeom told a news briefing.

01_10_Trump_Moon US President Donald Trump (front C) and First Lady Melania Trump (L) listen to South Korea's President Moon Jae-in speak during a state dinner at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on November 7, 2017. President Moon said Trump deserved "big credit" for the inter-Korean talks. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

A Blue House official said Moon “practically accepted” the invitation.

“We would like to see you at an early date in Pyongyang”, Kim Yo Jong told Moon during the lunch, according to another Blue House official.

The prospect of two-way talks between the Koreas, however, may not be welcomed by the United States.

Washington has pursued a strategy of exerting maximum pressure on Pyongyang through tough sanctions and harsh rhetoric, demanding it give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

“This is the strongest action yet by North Korea to drive a wedge between the South and the United States,” said Kim Sung-han, a former South Korean vice foreign minister and now a professor at Korea University in Seoul.Moon asked the North Korean delegation during Saturday’s meeting to engage in dialogue with Washington “at an early date”, the Blue House said.

A visit by Moon to the North would enable the first summit between leaders from the two Koreas since 2007.

Pyongyang conducted its largest nuclear test last year and said it had developed a missile capable of carrying a warhead to the United States.

U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leadership traded insults as tensions rose, with Trump repeatedly dismissing the prospect or value of talks with North Korea.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, also in South Korea for the Olympics, has said the United States and South Korea were closely aligned in their approach to dealing with North Korea.

“I am very confident, as President Trump is, that President Moon will continue to stand strongly with us in our extreme-pressure campaign,” Pence told NBC in an interview on Friday, maintaining all options were open to deal with the crisis.

“Make no mistake about it, the United States of America has viable military options to deal with a nuclear threat from North Korea but, that being said, we hope for a better path,” he said.

North and South Korea are technically still at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. The United States fought with South Korea and maintains tens of thousands of troops and an “ironclad” agreement to protect its ally.

North Korea has spent years developing its military, saying it needs to protect itself from U.S. aggression. 

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