I heard the melody of "Arirang," a popular Korean folk song, almost everywhere, both inside and outside the venues for events while covering the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

The song was also featured prominently in the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul, and also in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea.

To learn more about the song, I visited the Arirang Museum in Gangwon, the country’s northeastern province where Pyeongchang is located.

"Arirang" has its origin in a song sung by farmers in the late Joseon dynasty (13921897), according to Park Ji Hee, a curator at the museum.

There are more than 8,000 variations of the song’s lyrics, with a song is called "Arirang" as long as it contains this passage: “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Arirang gogaero neomeoganda” (Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Crossing over Arirang pass).

“There are many places called Arirang pass in the Korean Peninsula, and the song doesn’t refer to any specific one,” Park said.

The oldest document mentioning the "Arirang" song appeared around 1790. One theory says the word "arirang" came from the lament “Arorong,” which means “it would be better if I were a deaf-mute.”

The song gained widespread popularity among Koreans after it was used as the theme song in the Korean film “Arirang,” which was released in 1926 when the peninsula was under Japanese rule.

In South Korea, there are three main styles in which the song is sung and played. As I listened more carefully to the renditions of the song as it was played at the museum, I noticed the three different styles--buoyant, plaintive and slow and relaxed.

The North Korean version is distinctly different from any of these South Korean styles. The North version is sung powerfully with skillful vibratos reminiscent of the “kobushi” melisma style used in Japanese “enka” ballads.

In recent years, lines praising the North Korean political regime have been added to the lyrics, alienating many South Koreans.

The Pyeongchang Olympics ends on Feb. 25. The controversial decision by the North and South Korean governments to take part in some of the events under a common flag as a show of unity, which appears to be a sudden and risky move, was greeted both positively and also with suspicion around the world. "Arirang" was scheduled to be played in the closing ceremony as in the opening ceremony.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of two separate governments in the Korean Peninsula. But the history of "Arirang" is far longer than that of the division of Korea.

This Olympics has raised one intriguing question. Where is the relationship between North and South Korea right now in the winding pass between confrontation and reconciliation?

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 25

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.