When female ice hockey players from North and South Korea joined forces in a symbolic move at the Winter Olympics to form a unified team, results seemed likely to be of secondary importance.
Citizens on both side of the border were willing to overlook the 8-0 drubbings at the hands of both Switzerland and Sweden to focus on the fact that the neighbours, normally in a state of high tension, were able to come together in the sporting arena.
However, expectations for the next game will likely be elevated and a defeat will not be as easily accepted by fans or players.
The Korean women’s ice hockey team face Japan – their biggest Asian rival – on Wednesday (Feb 14) in the Korean team’s final preliminary round game.
The unified team’s games have been heavily politicised – as shown by the presence of the South Korean president and the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un – and this match will carry even more weight.
There is an intense rivalry with Japan, based in part on the history of North Asia. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945, and the entire peninsula suffered under Japanese rule during that time.
“The North Korean athletes also feel the same as us, and we all told each other that we’re going to have to win this next game against Japan no matter what,” said South Korean player Choi Ji-yeon.
The South Korean women’s ice hockey team last competed against Japan in the 2017 Asian Games, with Japan winning, 3-0.
“Compared to Sweden and Switzerland, we’re going to try our best more than anything to win our game against Japan,” Choi said. “We, as a team, never beat Japan before and I think beating Japan will also be able to gift happiness to our people.”
Many Korean people are now looking to the unified hockey team to bring more than symbolism to the rink.
“I was initially against North Koreans joining the team, but the match against Japan means a lot to us as a nation, and I hope that the North and South Korean players can come together more unified as a team to just beat Japan,” said Seung-won Min, a high school student at Buheung High School, who was at the match against Sweden.
SPORTING CHALLENGE HELPED BY FRIENDSHIP
The unified team was only assembled two weeks prior to the Olympics when South Korean team coach Sarah Murray was told she needed to add 12 North Koreans to the roster, requiring three of them to play in each game.
The last minute addition of North Korean players was a major challenge.
“Adding new players isn’t easy but I think the Olympics would’ve been a challenge for us regardless of the change,” Murray said.
The players have apparently been spending plenty of their off-ice time together. And despite the ever-present North Korean minders, the players have been able to foster friendships.
“They have people with the North Korean players at all times, but they just kind of sit with us and don’t interfere,” Murray said. “You know when they’re sitting at the cafeteria eating and laughing together you almost forget that it’s North and South because they get along so well together.”
While the players come from two completely different environments, they have still been able to overcome cultural differences in warming up to each other as teammates.
“They don’t really know K-pop or have a phone so it’s hard to relate in that sense,” Choi said. “But I’m really thankful for the North Korean players, especially Hwang Chung-Gum and Kim Hyang-mi, for being so friendly and approaching me first.”
The North Korean players were not the only ones unfamiliar with the sound of K-pop: The 200 North Korean cheerleaders sat with blank faces when songs like Cheer Up by girl-group Twice have been played at the first matches.
Still, the North Korean cheerleader group quickly began to get into the groove, waving their arms with mini-unification flags.
“We can really feel the energy of the North Korean cheerleaders during the game, and it’s helpful to know that they are all cheering us on as one team,” Korean player Park Yoon-jung said.