North Korean hockey players cross the border to join up with Southern compatriots for Winter Olympics

The North Koreans travel to an athletes’ village in southern South Korea, where they are welcomed by their South Korean teammates

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 3:33pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 January, 2018, 3:35pm

Female hockey players from the rival Koreas were paired up with each other on Thursday to form their first-ever Olympic squad during next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Games, as their countries press ahead with rare reconciliation steps following a period of nuclear tensions.

A dozen North Korean hockey players wearing white-and-red winter parkas crossed the heavily fortified border into South Korea earlier on Thursday, as about 30-40 conservative activists shouted anti-Pyongyang slogans at a nearby border area.

The North Koreans travelled on to a national athletes’ village in southern South Korea, where they were welcomed by their South Korean teammates and Canadian coach Sarah Murray, who presented them with flower bouquets in an outdoor welcoming ceremony.

“I sincerely welcome your arrival,” Lee Jae-kun, head of the athletes’ village, told the North Koreans after they got off a bus.

Park Chol Ho, a North Korean coach who arrived with the 12 athletes and two support staff, told reporters that he is happy to team up with South Koreans.

“I’m very pleased with the fact that North and South are united as one to participate in (the Olympics). I expect we’ll see good results if we unite our efforts ... though we don’t have much time,” he said.

The Korean players later shouted “We are one!” and posed for a group photo. North and South Korean players plan to practice separately for several days as Murray needs time to learn about the North Koreans. They plan to start a joint practice sometime next week, according to Yonhap news agency.

The Koreas fielded a single team to major sports events only twice, both in 1991. One event was the world table tennis championships and the other soccer’s World Youth Championship. But this is the first time they’ve assembled a single team for the Olympics.

The Koreas explored how to cooperate at the Olympics after the North’s leader Kim Jong-un abruptly said in his New Year’s address that he was willing to send an Olympic delegation. As part of the rapprochement deals, the Koreas also agreed for their athletes to march together under a single flag during the February 9 opening ceremony, while the North will send a large art troupe to perform in the South.

Some experts say North Korea may want to use improved ties with the South as a way to weaken US-led international sanctions.

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The International Olympic Committee has allowed 22 North Korean athletes, including the 12 hockey players, to compete in Pyeongchang in exceptional entries given to the North, which initially had none for the games. The 10 others will compete in figure skating, short-track speedskating, Alpine skiing and cross-country skiing. They will go to South Korea on February 1.

The joint hockey team deal has triggered a backlash in South Korea, with a survey showing about 70 per cent of respondents opposing the idea because it would deprive South Korean players of playing time. In April 2017, the South Korean team defeated the North Koreans 3-0 during the group rounds of the Ice Hockey World Women’s World Championship held in the eastern South Korean city of Gangneung.

The unified Korean team will open their group action against Switzerland on February 10. It will then face Sweden on February 12 and Japan on February 14. What draws attention is its Japan match, as many in both Koreas still harbour bitter resentment against Japan’s 35-year colonial rule that ended in 1945, three years before the peninsula was divided into the Soviet-backed North and the US-supported South.

Conservatives in Seoul have held a series of small-scale rallies in recent days. On Monday, activists burned Kim's photo and a North Korean flag as the head of the North’s popular girl band passed by them during a visit to the capital. North Korea responded Tuesday by warning similar actions could disrupt ongoing reconciliation efforts.

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The United States imposed new sanctions on Wednesday on North Korean financial and business networks in China and Russia as it intensified its push to cut off revenues for the nation’s nuclear and missile programmes.

South Korean officials hope an Olympic-inspired mood of detente would serve as a stepping stone to the resumption of diplomatic talks that could slow down North Korea’s nuclear advancement. North Korea, however, has insisted it won’t discuss its nuclear programme during its ongoing talks with South Korea, and some experts warn that tensions could flare again after the Olympics.