While Seoul forges ahead with plans to use the upcoming Winter Olympics to showcase inter-Korean unity, some South Korean athletes are "furious" at proposals to form joint teams with North Koreans, highlighting a broader lack of enthusiasm for some of the government's peace-making plans.
Officials from both countries are still engaged in talks over exactly how the North will participate in next month's games in Pyeongchang. But the backlash may trip up Seoul's plans to use the sporting event to improve bilateral ties after a year of high tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.
South Korea's women's ice hockey team was the first to be singled out for possible integration with North Koreans, with Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan saying the government would ask Olympic organizers to expand the team's roster from 23 to more than 30.
That came as a shock to team members, who had just returned to South Korea last Friday after training in the United States for the past three weeks, a senior official with the Korea Ice Hockey Association said.
"They were just furious and found the idea absurd," the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity. "We are utterly speechless that the government just picked us out of blue and asked us to play with total strangers at the Olympics."
The proposal has also sparked an outcry from thousands of South Koreans, who have signed online petitions asking the presidential Blue House to drop the idea.
"I cannot help but think the government is abusing its power to make political gains from the Olympics," said one comment on the petition. "Taking roster spots from South Korean athletes
who have put so much effort for the Olympics — a dream stage for all South Korean athletes - for the North Koreans is not fair at all."
More than 70 percent of South Koreans oppose forming a joint team with the North, according to a Jan. 11 survey released by the office of the South's National Assembly Speaker and television network SBS. More than 80 percent, however, said they welcomed the North's participation in general.
A spokesmen for the Blue House referred questions to the ministries involved in the talks with North Korea.
The sports ministry said it was discussing the matter with the International Olympic Committee to "minimize any disadvantage" for the South Korean team.
"We will also be taking the public opinion into consideration prior to making the final decision," a ministry official told Reuters. The unification ministry declined to comment.