PYEONGCHANG, February 10, 2018 - The scoreline was always going to be an afterthought as a combined North and South Korean ice hockey team made their Olympic debut on Saturday night. United under one anthem, one uniform and one flag featuring a pale blue Korean peninsula, the Korean girls lost 8:0 to Switzerland, but brought new power to the narrative of tentative peace that has opened PyeongChang 2018.
The whole world watched on at the opening ceremony as South Korean President Moon Jae-in shook hands with Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after decades of frosty to hostile relations between the neighbors. The two leaders featured again at the hockey match between Korea and Switzerland, accompanied by IOC president Thomas Bach and PyeongChang 2018 President Hee Lee Beom, who will consider themselves the architects of this unified Korean team. Bach himself visited the players on the bench following their loss. “He said winning or losing may be important, but the more important thing is to have one Korea go for one goal,” joint North Korean torchbearer Su Hyon Jong said.
The backbone of the combined team is essentially South Korea’s, who have a full roster of 23 players, on to which an additional 12 North Koreans have been added. As agreed upon with the IOC, the team must use at least three North Korean players each game out of a total of 22 they are allowed to choose. In the match against Switzerland, it was the minimum of three that featured, including joint Korean flagbearer from the opening ceremony Gum Chung Hwang, and Su Hyon Jong, who had the best chance to score on the night.
But the fact that the team had been put together and confirmed on January 17, less than a month before the start of the Olympics, showed in what was a spirited but scattered display against Sochi 2014 bronze medalists Switzerland, who didn’t let the political complexities of the match affect their performance.
“We are one”
Those complexities were only magnified by the fact that 139 of North Korea’s cheerleaders dressed in identical red coats attended the match, cheering on the Korean team through song and synchronized displays, much to the fascination of the South Korean crowd. Chants of “Korea, We are one” rang throughout the entire arena, as the cheerleaders waved the unified Korean flag, and the rest of the crowds joined in.
It was also this sense of unity that rang out from the Korean players following the match.
“They are no different than us, they are such sweet girls, and we are proud to play on a unified team together, especially because they are working so hard on the drills and on everything we agree on in training,” South Korea’s Song Hui Ryo said about her teammates.
"We have been asked so many times if we would rather have just a South Korean team here competing, and this isn't something for us to comment on, especially since so many of the girls are very talented, and would make the team even if they weren't North Korean. The biggest difference is that South Korea previously had a chance to compete and practice against high level teams, while the North Korean girls haven't experience this kind of speed on the ice. But it is something they are learning out there now, and working on day in day out," Korean-American Randi Heesoo Griffin said.
The girls revealed that those drills and trainings haven’t been the smoothest, due to the fact that players from the North and South use a different vocabulary for many hockey terms including “pass” and “shoot”, with South Koreans using the English words, and North insisting on Korean terminology. The head coach American-Canadian Sarah Murray has a staff of three assistant coaches, an American, a North Korean and a South Korean, and an English to Korean translator. A handbook encompassing all of the phrases they need on the ice was given to each of the players as well.
Even though they are on the same team, the North Korean players have their own bus and their own dorms, separate from their South Korean counterparts.
"But we have our meals together, and our conversations are normal, like between friends anywhere. Things like 'what do you like to eat, do you have a boyfriend, how many brothers and sisters do you have?' Normal stuff," Song Hui Ryo said. Not many would have dared use the term 'friends' for North and South before these Games.
The initial announcement of a combined Korean team, however, brought with it a lot of backlash, especially among young South Koreans. They claimed, essentially, that North Korea was riding the coattails of their team’s success, that the last minute addition of players with less experience would only weaken their team, and give less playing time to South Koreans who had been preparing for the Olympic Games for four years.
An online petition on Blue House – the official website of the South Korean government – protesting the joint team has over 58,000 signatures head of the Games.
However, both North and South Korean torchbearers Su Hyon Jong and Jongah Park, who almost metaphorically so- climbed what was a steep slippery slope to light the Olympic flame together at the opening ceremony- insisted that a unified Korea was better than a divided one, and that they saw a future where the players could continue to play as one team.
As so much within the Olympic Games, this question is one of legacy, and how much drive for unification - in sport and otherwise – will be left after PyeongChang 2018 comes to a close.