PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- The overtly political 2018 Winter Olympics closed Sunday night very much as they began, with humanity's finest athletes marching exuberantly across the world stage as three nations with decades of war and suspicion among them shared a VIP box -- and a potential path away from conflict.
Senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. presidential adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump sat in two rows of seats behind the Olympic rings, meant to represent a competition of peace and international unity. In close proximity -- though with no apparent communication between Trump and Kim -- they watched an exuberant, elaborate show that concluded the Pyeongchang Games.
Even as dancers told cultural stories to music before a huge crowd, South Korea's presidential office released a brief statement saying that Pyongyang had expressed willingness to hold talks with Washington.
The North has "ample intentions of holding talks with the United States," according to the office. The North's delegation also agreed that "South-North relations and U.S.-North Korean relations should be improved together," Moon's office, known as the Blue House, said.
It was an extraordinary bookend to an extraordinary Olympics that featured athletic excellence, surprises and unexpected lurches forward toward a new detente on the Korean Peninsula. Thrilled athletes marched into the arena around the world's flags, relaxed after showing their athletic best to themselves and to the world.
"We have been through a lot so that we could blaze a trail," said Kim Eun-jung, skip of the South Korean women's curling team, which captured global renown as the "Garlic Girls" — all from a garlic-producing Korean hometown. They made a good run for gold before finishing with runner-up silver.
That these games would be circumscribed by politics was a given from the outset because of regional rivalries. North Korea, South Korea, Japan and China are neighbors with deep, sometimes twisted histories that get along uneasily with each other in this particular geographic cul-de-sac.
But there was something more this time around. Hanging over the entire games was the saga -- or opportunity, if you prefer -- of a delicate diplomatic dance between the Koreas, North and South, riven by war and discord and an armed border for the better part of a century.
The games started with a last-minute flurry of agreements to bring North Koreans to South Korea to compete under one combined Koreas banner. Perish the thought, some said, but Moon Jae-in's government stayed the course. By the opening ceremony, a march of North and South into the Olympic Stadium was watched by the world -- and by dozens of North Korean cheerleaders applauding in calibrated synchronicity.
Also watching was an equally extraordinary crew. Deployed in a VIP box together were Moon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's envoy sister, Kim Yo Jong. The latter two, at loggerheads over North Korea's nuclear program, didn't speak, and the world watched the awkwardness.
What followed was a strong dose of athletic diplomacy: two weeks of global exposure for the Korean team, particularly the women's hockey squad, which trained for weeks with North and South side by side getting along, taking selfies and learning about each other.
On Sunday night, leaders took center stage.
Kim, Donald Trump's daughter and Moon sat in close proximity as the Olympics' end unfolded before them and the statement was released in Seoul. Also seated nearby was Gen. Vincent Brooks, commander of U.S. forces Korea.
The development was particularly striking given that Kim Yong Chol, now vice chairman of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party Central Committee, is suspected of masterminding a lethal 2010 military attack on the South.
Outside the stadium, North Korea was not welcomed as much.
More than 200 anti-Pyongyang protesters, waving South Korean and U.S. flags, banging drums and holding signs like "Killer Kim Yong Chol go to hell," rallied in streets near the park. They denounced the South Korean government's decision to allow the visit. There were no major clashes.
Meantime, the Olympians departing Monday leave behind a Korean Peninsula full of possibility for peace, or at least less hostility.
The steps taken by North and South toward each other this month are formidable but fluid. People are cautiously optimistic: the governor of Gangwon, the border province where Pyeongchang is located, suggested Sunday that the 2021 Asian Games could be co-hosted by both Koreas.
It might not happen. But it could. That could be said about pretty much anything at an Olympic Games, inside the rings and out. Corporate and political and regimented though it may be, that's what makes it still the best game in town for an athletic thrill every other year -- and yes, sometimes a political one, too.