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 riven 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 -- both appearing genuinely pleased -- while they watched an elaborate show of light, sound and human performance. A moment stunning in its optics and its implications came minutes later: The United States, represented by Vice President Mike Pence, sat 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 also 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 Olympic Stadium in this 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.
Members of a delegation from North Korea, part of an Olympic partnership between the two Korean rivals, watched from high in the stadium a performance called "The Land of Peace" as past South Korean athletes paraded a large southern flag.
After a chaotic year of nuclear war threats and nuclear and missile tests from the North, it was an evening of striking visual moments.
The significance of Pence and the North Koreans sitting in the same box was not immediately clear. He had been dispatched from Washington for the Olympics in part, he said, to make sure that people didn't lose sight of how the U.S. government perceives the North -- as a dangerous neighbor in the community of nations.
What did seem clear was that, deliberately or not, the North Korean government had managed to edge its way onto center stage during South Korea's biggest global moment in years.
There was a palpable excitement in this isolated, rugged mountain town, as one of the poorest, coldest and most disgruntled parts of an otherwise prosperous South Korea kicked off two weeks of winter sports, Olympic spectacle and, just maybe, a bit of inter-Korean reconciliation.
There will be plenty of sporting drama for both die-hard snow and ice junkies and the once-every-four-years enthusiast.
Will the 168 Olympic Athletes from Russia -- competing in neutral uniforms under the Olympic flag -- bring home gold? Will Nathan Chen of the U.S. hit his quad jumps and claim figure skating glory?
Can reigning men's gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan overcome injury and defend his title against Chen? Will the past and present star of American skiing, Lindsey Vonn, be surpassed by the likely future of the sport, Mikaela Shiffrin?
The athletic aspect of these games has been overshadowed in the buildup to the opening ceremonies by a frenzied, increasingly momentous fire-hose spray of political developments. The rival Koreas, flirting with war just weeks ago, are suddenly making overtures toward the no-longer-quite-so-absurd notion of cooperation.
North Korea has sent nearly 500 people to the Pyeongchang Games, including officials, athletes, artists and cheerleaders, after the Koreas agreed to a series of conciliatory gestures to mark the Games. More than 2,900 athletes from 92 countries will compete here, making it the biggest Winter Olympics to date.
After two failed Olympic bids that emphasized the high-sounding notion that the Games could help make peace with North Korea, Pyeongchang finally sold its successful try in 2011 on the decidedly capitalistic goal of boosting winter sports tourism in Asia.
North Korea has a habit of not letting itself be ignored when it comes to its southern rival, though. Its agents blew up a South Korean airliner ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympics in an attempt to dissuade visitors, then it boycotted its rival's Olympic debut on the world stage. A few years later, the discovery of the huge progress that Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, had been surreptitiously making on its nuclear programs plunged the Korean Peninsula into crisis. It has only deepened over the years as the North closes in on the ability to field an arsenal of nukes that can hit U.S. cities.
And so, with a little help from a liberal South Korean president eager to engage Pyongyang, the 2018 Pyeongchang Games open.
They do so with as much focus on the North, which has zero real medal contenders, as the South, which in the three decades since its last Olympics has built a solid winter program, as it went from economic backwater and military dictatorship to Asia's fourth-biggest economy and a bulwark of liberal democracy.
Could Pyeongchang's initial pitch -- that it could contribute to peace on the Korean Peninsula -- actually become reality? The opening ceremonies offered at least some hints about that, and maybe more. What's certain is that these Games, more so than any in recent memory, are about far more than sports.