The Korean peninsula may be split, but on the ice at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, its people are working as one. Though the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team fell 8-0 to the Swiss in their opening match, they worked together, fielding a team of both North and South Koreans.
It’s a display of unity that has been attempted through many different sporting events between the two Koreas since they were official divided in 1953. It’s not their first unified team, but their only unified team to debut at the highest level of sport. In a year when North American professional sports leagues are debating the place of politics in sport, the Korean women’s hockey team shows sport diplomacy at work. To some, it signals a pathway to future peace. To others, it’s less positive.
“As one, we are stronger than being a divided two,” said North Korean forward Jung Su Yuon after the loss to Switzerland. “I think we will excel as one unified team, not just in sports but in other areas as well.” Jung, a torchbearer in the opening ceremonies, was one of three North Korean players to get ice time against the Swiss and notched one of Korea’s eight shots on net.
“Every time the puck went anywhere near the other team’s goal, people were just screaming.”
She shared torchbearing duties with South Korean teammate Park Jongah. “Being a torchbearer is a special experience for anybody,” said Jongah. “It made it more special because I was going hand-in-hand with a fellow athlete from the North.”
The last time South Korea hosted the Olympics, in 1988, relations were far more fraught. In the lead-up to those Games, North Korean agents planted a bomb on a plane en route to South Korea from Baghdad, Iraq, which exploded mid-air, killing everyone on board.
Yet using sport in an attempt to unite the peninsula is hardly new. In 1963, the two Koreas met three times to discuss sending a joint team to the Tokyo Olympics. They met again in 1984 and 1988 for the same purpose, though a deal was not reached in either instance.
Since those 1988 Games, efforts intensified to use athletic competition to bridge the gap between the two Koreas. In 1991, the two Koreas formed a joint table tennis team for the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, where the Korean women defeated global table tennis giant China. The same year, they sent a joint soccer team to the FIFA World Youth Championships, and in years following have held several unification tournaments—both in basketball and soccer—in the North and the South. There was even a friendly hockey game, held in March 2006, which saw North and South Korea mix athletes to compete with and against each other.
The Winter Olympics were a long time coming to South Korea. Pyeongchang organizers lost out twice on hosting the Olympics—once to Vancouver, and once to Sochi. The International Olympic Committee questionnaire that prospective host cities had to fill out in the 2000s when Pyeongchang began bidding for the Winter Games had a section entitled “Principle Motivation.” In it, the South Koreans wrote the Olympic Games were a “symbol of harmony and understanding, and their presence in this ideologically divided land will contribute greatly to reconciliation and national unity.” (The Koreans have marched together at previous Olympic Games—in 2000 in Sydney, 2004 in Athens and 2006 in Turin.)
Hopes lingered that something like the unified women’s hockey team would one day happen. “The original Olympics was to promote world peace,” said Dr. Young-teck Cho, head of the organizing committee that will bring the FINA World Championships for water sports to South Korea in 2019. “It started with the ancient Greeks, and it’s following up until now. We believe that that’s one of the main purposes of playing sports.” As the slogan for their championships, Dr. Cho’s organizing committee chose “Dive Into Peace.”
So as tensions ratcheted up heading into the 2018 Winter Games, the South Koreans again extended the invite to the North to send athletes. This time, the North responded positively, sending not only athletes but a contingent of cheerleaders and a delegation that included the ceremonial North Korean head of state Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister.
If South Koreans attending the match against the Swiss felt strange about the eerily positive North Korean cheerleaders or about an immediate family member of Kim Jong-un being in the stands, they hardly showed it. Like polite houseguests, they cheered along, waving a mixture of Korean and Unified Korea flags. The North Koreans didn’t join in singing the K-pop anthems played over the loudspeakers, and the South Koreans declined to sing along when the North Koreans broke into their choreographed songs. But for the most part, they cheered together for the same goal.
“Every time the puck went anywhere near the other team’s goal, people were just screaming,” said forward Randi Griffin, who was born in the United States. Her mom is Korean, and Griffin was contacted by the Korean national team in 2014 as they began assembling a team for Pyeongchang.
But while Griffin and her teammates had been forming a competitive team for the past several years, the North Koreans, 12 of which are on the team, were just added in late January. Their skill level isn’t the same as the South Koreans, and it’s a requirement that at least three North Koreans receive ice time each game.
“Things have been in flux on our team,” said Griffin after their first-game loss. “We’ve had some injuries and some people in and out of the lineup,” she continued before adding, “I was playing with people I’ve never played with before as linemates.”
“We cannot win,” Korean fan Anthony Jeon, 24, said bluntly during the first intermission. Jeon, who came from Seoul for the game, assessed that the North Korean players were holding the South Koreans back. “I thought it was not a good idea, and now it still seems like it’s not a good idea. Hockey is a team sport. They have to speak with each other and share their skills. I’m a Korean. I saw the whole game. They cannot do it.”
Jeon was right. The Koreans couldn’t do it. They never notched a win, falling 8-0 to the Swedes in their second match, and 4-1 to Japan. What remains to be seen is if they will succeed in achieving the peace that the unified hockey team was meant to create.
After the game, a reporter asked Jung about the high-level North Korean officials in the stands. It was the question on everyone’s minds—how did that feel? What was it like to have such high-ranking people from the North welcomed in the South? Jung replied that competing in front of top North Korean officials was “the greatest honor.” But she pointed out that their presence “did not make the game that special.”
What did make the game special was that, after years of trying—three Olympic bids, marching together in previous games; after many joint sporting events on both sides of the border, after wins and losses both in sport and diplomacy—the Koreans fielded a team together at the highest level of international sport.
Indeed, it was “the game anticipated by everyone in Korea,“ as Park referred to it. “The positive thing,” she said, “is that of course we will be very good competitors and inspirations to each other.”