American fans calm in Korea with worried relatives back home
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — A 15-year-old American girl looked at her parents across the dinner table two weeks before they were scheduled to get on a plane for South Korea to fulfill her years-long dream of seeing the Olympics. She wanted them to know she was happy they were going, she told them, even as she worried they might not make it home.
“She was nervous about it,” recalled her mother, Lisa Jansen of Bloomington, Minn. “She had a lot of friends asking, ‘Are you going to come back? Will we ever see you again?’”
Their family is among American tourists arriving in Pyeongchang, South Korea, calm and excited for the games, but with stories of family and friends so frightened by the ratcheting tension between the United States and North Korea they had warned them to stay at home.
They reported family members crying and friends pledging to pray they don’t get bombed. One mother told her daughter she would kidnap her to keep her off the plane.
Their stories demonstrate the fear the North Korean regime inspires in the American mind, even as South Koreans who live within miles of the contentious border every day greet the provocations and threats of nuclear war with shrugs.
Sherrell Pippen, a 46-year-old American who has lived with her husband in South Korea for four years, said her family in Pennsylvania routinely calls when they’ve seen something worrisome in the news and beg her to move home.
But she had no hesitation about attending the Olympics, because she looks around and sees her South Korean neighbors utterly calm.
“When my neighbors panic, I’ll panic,” she said. “But not until then.”
Katie Hollimon also didn’t hesitate to book her trip from Minnesota, but she did debate with herself whether she should wear American-themed clothes as she dressed Friday for the opening ceremony.
“I didn’t want to be perceived as supporting what’s going on between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un,” she said, groaning over Trump’s dubbing the Korean leader “little rocket man” and bragging on Twitter that his own nuclear button is bigger. “I just think it’s creating a really hostile environment for the world.”
That prompted her friend, John Jeff, to want to go to the Olympics even more: “I want to represent what I think America should be,” he said, “as a counterpoint to what people are seeing.”
It seems, however, that at least some Americans who might have wanted to see the Olympics stayed away.
The local Olympics organizing committee said that 81 percent of tickets had been sold as of Friday, though could not say what percentage were sold to locals or to international visitors. Anbritt Stengele, president of Sports Traveler, an agency that specializes in vacations to sporting events, said via email that their sales were lower than any previous winter Olympics since they began booking the games in 2002.
She attributed the decline to a variety of factors including the political taunting between the United States and North Korea. Interest came in waves that seemed to track with their back-and-forth rhetoric, she said: People would call to inquire, then the leaders would clash and things would go quiet for a while. Then people would call again, the leaders would scrap again and the quiet returned.
“We would keep repeating this cycle over and over. One person in particular that did end up booking said to me, ‘What if there is a nuclear war? Am I crazy for wanting to travel to this?’” she said. “So that’s a conversation I’ve never had before.”
The Jansen family worried so much about the potential for conflict that they put off booking their trip for 10 months. They decided just two months ago to go ahead with the trip.
She and her husband assured their daughter, Yohana, that they’d never take her into danger. They told their concerned friends and relatives that the Olympics is probably the most policed place in the world and they expected they would be safer there than they ever had been.
Lisa Jansen was born in South Korea and lived in an orphanage here until she was adopted by an American family. She is taking her daughter Monday to see the orphanage, and they got tickets to the event they most wanted to see — an ice hockey game pitting South Korea against the United States.
They said they felt no fear as they walked into the opening ceremony, where North Korea and South Korea would moments later march together in a show of solidarity after a decades-long bitter and sometimes bloody standoff.
The family carried both an American flag, and a Korean one.
Follow Claire Galofaro on Twitter at @clairegalofaro.