PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In an extraordinary show of unexpected unity, North and South Korea sat side by side Friday night under exploding fireworks that represented peace, not destruction, as the 2018 Winter Olympics opened on a Korean Peninsula driven by generations of anger, suspicion and bloodshed.
The sister of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, shook hands with South Korean President Moon Jae-in — and appeared genuinely pleased — while they watched an elaborate show of light, sound and human performance.
Minutes later came a moment stunning in its optics and its implications: The United States, represented by Vice President Mike Pence, sitting a row ahead of Kim’s sister and the North’s nominal head of state, all watching the games begin — officials from two nations that many worry are on the brink of nuclear conflict.
Not long after, North and South Korean athletes entered Olympic Stadium together, waving flags showing a unified Korea — the longtime dream, in theory at least, of many Koreans both North and South.
It was the rivals’ first joint Olympic march since 2007. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach then handed the podium to Moon, who declared the Olympics officially open.
“Athletes from the two Koreas will work together for victory, and that will resonate with and be remembered in the hearts of people around the world as a sign of peace,” Moon said in a reception ahead of the ceremony, according to his office.
Bach lauded the joint march of the two Koreas as a “powerful message.”
“We thank you,” he said. “We are all touched by this wonderful gesture. We all join and support you in your message of peace.”
After years of frustration, billions of dollars and a nagging national debate about their worth, the opening ceremonies took place before a world watching the moment not only for its athletic significance and global spectacle, but for clues about what the political future of the peninsula could hold.
A large delegation from North Korea, dressed in identical garb and cheering in careful coordination, watched from an upper deck of the stadium.
A huge crowd gathered in the freezing Olympics Stadium in the isolated, mountainous corner of South Korea, as performances displayed the sweep of Korean history and culture.
The march of athletes from the world’s many nations saw them girded against a frigid Korean night with temperatures that dipped below freezing and biting winds.
South Korean figure skating gold medalist Yuna Kim ignited the Olympic cauldron for the games.
The opening ceremony kicked off what will be the biggest Winter Olympic Games to date with more than 2,900 athletes from 92 countries competing.
Kim won a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and a silver at the 2014 Sochi Games before retiring from competition.
She remains perhaps the country’s most popular sports personality and has worked as a goodwill ambassador to promote the Pyeongchang Games.