What does the Disney movie, Moana, have in common with the Summer 1988 Olympics?

Spoiler Alert: This blog contains spoilers for the movie Moana and The Daily’s January 16, 2018 podcast.

Last month I had the fortune of watching my now most favorite Disney movie ever: Moana. I hadn’t heard of it before, but for some reason it came up in conversation with my friend Pat. I asked her if it was worth watching and she said yes, but with limited enthusiasm.

It had been a while since we last saw each other and by the end of my visit, I told her about my plans for founding an ocean conservation non-profit as inspired by my collective experiences doing marine mammal research in Hawaii, growing up with oceans as my childhood decor theme picked by my mother, and experiencing the magic of the ocean with my grandmother (very much like Moana’s grandmother). After hearing my plans she insisted that we watch Moana; she knew for a fact that I would fall in love with the movie, and I’ve learned to trust Pat with these sorts of things.


I have been so lucky to be able to work in such amazing locations and with such amazing people! Shout outs to Ocean Mammal Institute, Murdoch University, Duke University, and Cape Henlopen State Parks!

We ditched our plans to go to a speakeasy and cuddled up with her two adorable cats, Jack and Clyde, to watch Moana. This movie turned out to be an endless muse for me. I was frantically taking notes while watching it, in between wiping tears from my cheek, and exchanging expressive faces with Pat.

This blog post is the first of likely many, that will be inspired in part by the Disney tale of a young Polynesian princess who is destined to lead her tribe at a time of crisis spurred on by natural resource depletion. Her father forbids her from venturing to the ocean, even though she felt drawn to it since birth.


As a toddler, Moana has a miraculous experience playing with the ocean’s waves.

She ultimately disobeys her father and ends up saving her village through her adventures in the ocean vast.

Lessons I learned from the movie keep resurfacing in my personal life, in the experiences of my friends and family, and in the stories I hear from around the world. This post in particular, is inspired by the events that took place on November 29, 1987 in South Korea.

As part of my weekly morning ritual, I listen to the 20-minute podcast, The Daily by the New York Times.

I was quasi-listening to the January 16 episode whilst tidying up my bed. Midway through the episode I realized what I had been missing by trying to multitask: an amazing story about the 1988 Winter Olympic Games that were hosted in Seoul, South Korea. I restarted the episode, sat down and gave host Michael Barbara and guest journalist Susan Chira my undivided attention.

Since the game took place before I was born, this story was all new for me. If you have the time, you should definitely listen to this podcast. In summary, it was unveiled that Seoul would host the 1988 Winter Olympics much to the dismay and embarrassment of North Korea, thereby fueling the glowing fire between the two countries. For South Korea, this was viewed as a timely “coming out party,” as they were rising from the ashes of the Korean War.

North Korea’s pride was wounded and the country felt insulted. Despite attempts to compromise (North Korea wanted to “co-host” the Olympics as “one Korea”; South Korea declined, but offered to give them five of the less popular games), it was determined by the United States (an ally of South Korea) that there was a high risk of North Korea committing an act of terrorism so as to “destroy” the game. The Pyongyang government was known to be unpredictable, angry, and to frequently act without restraint (hmmm… that sounds familiar!).

On November 29, 1987, weeks before the Olympics, tragedy struck. Two North Korean flight agents boarded Korean Air Flight 858, disguised as Japanese tourists heading from Baghdad to Seoul. The plane carrying 115 South Korean passengers made an interim stop in Abu Dhabi, allowing the agents to leave a transistor radio armed with an explosive in the overhead compartment.

En route to Seoul, the plane exploded in midair and all 115 passengers died.

The terrorists were betrayed by their forged passports and were ultimately arrested. As any “good” terrorist should do, they had prepared for this moment and bit down into their cigarettes with cyanide ampules tucked inside. The male died, but the 25-year old woman, Kim Hyon-hui, survived and was interrogated and sentenced to death.

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Before I go on, I’d like to fast forward to the end of Moana’s story. Perhaps my favorite scene of the movie, Moana faces Te Ka, a lava demon who was once an island goddess until her heart was stolen by the tattooed demi-god Maui. After Maui’s brute force attempts fail to overpower Te Ka, Moana bravely confronts the lava monster. In a moment where you are sure that she will do some amazing warrior move that eviscerates Te Ka once and for all, she instead walks dangerously close to Te Ka’s fiery face and softly sings a sweet and simple song.

I have crossed the horizon to find you.
I know your name.
They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this does not define you.
This is not who you are. You know who you are.

These simple words work wonders, and they happen to be very similar to the words my younger sister used to comfort me over the phone when I cried in desperation: “I don’t love myself.” She knew these words would heal, because they had worked for her once before.


Te Ka finds peace in Moana’s heartfelt words and she turns herself into molten rock, allowing Moana to place the heart into the spiral of Te Kā’s chest. With the heart finally restored, Te Kā returns to her true form as Te Fiti.

The Olympic story of 1988 does not end in tragedy. Just as Moana extended warmth and understanding rather than fighting fire with fire, there were new attempts to ease tensions through dialogue. President Reagan and newly elected South Korea leadership reached out to North Korea with diplomatic overtures. Ultimately, it is through this act of terror that initiates diplomatic conversations betwixt the three countries and North Korea promises to behave.

The Winter Olympics unfold ; it is seen as a triumph for South Korea, with 80,000 people showing up.

Now, for my last plot twist, I will tell you what happened to the young North Korean spy. At the last minute, she was pardoned from her death sentence out of recognition that she was brainwashed and a victim of the Pyongyang cult. And just as in the Disney movies, she married one of her investigators. Today

she lives in South Korea in an untold location. From her interviews, it is clear that “Kim Hyun-hui has gone from one-time true believer in the Kim cult to an ardent hatred of the regime and a deep sense of personal victimhood.”

I deserve the death penalty for what I did but I believe my life was spared because I was the only witness to this terror perpetrated by North Korea. As the only witness, it is my destiny to testify about the truth.

Categories: History, MoviesTags: , , ,

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