Combined Korean hockey team makes historic Olympic debut

Dignitaries, including the powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, attend the game in front of a sell-out crowd

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 February, 2018, 9:36pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 February, 2018, 12:05pm

The Korean women’s hockey team, the first in Olympic history to combine players from North and South, took the ice on Saturday night for their debut game in front of a raucous, sell-out crowd on another historic night mixing sports and politics on an international stage.

The debut against Switzerland came just 24 hours after an extraordinary opening ceremony a few miles away was marked by signs of unity between the two rivals.

Like the ceremony, the game included dignitaries from North and South in close proximity.

The powerful sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Yo-jong, was watching with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, according to Moon’s office. They were joined by North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong-nam.

The two North Koreans are on a landmark visit to the South amid a flurry of abrupt reconciliation steps, and both attended the opening ceremony before having lunch with Moon at Moon’s presidential palace earlier on Saturday. The North Koreans have invited Moon to visit Pyongyang in what would be the third inter-Korean summit talks since their 1945 division.

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Fans roared every time a Korean got the puck on her stick and Han Soo-jin nearly put the team on the board with a shot from the left circle that hit the crossbar early in the first period. North Korean Jong Su-hyon had one of Korea’s three shots in the first.

Still, the Koreans were playing the world’s sixth-ranked team and trailed the Swiss 4-0 early in the second period, with Alina Muller scoring four times. Coach Sarah Murray played three North Korean forwards as required in the deal creating the team; she had to scratch three of her South Korean players for the game.

Dozens of North Korean cheering group members dressed in red were at the Kwandong Hockey Center to root for the Korean team. Earlier, hundreds of spectators lined the streets outside, chanting and waving small “unification flags” amid gusting, chilly winds. One man held up a sign that read, “The peace of all mankind.”

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“We have to be unified [with North Korea]. Politicians must let the Korean people meet and get together continuously,” said Park Sung-uk, a 48-year-old office worker who attended the game with his family. “I just want the unified team to do well in these Olympics.”

Fielding the joint hockey team was one of the key agreements the Koreas have struck after several rounds of talks at the border on how to cooperate during the Olympics, which run through February 25.

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Athletes from North and South paraded together during the ceremony in the same white parkas, marching under a single “unification flag” depicting an undivided peninsula to the tune of their shared traditional folk song “Arirang” instead of their respective anthems. It was their first joint march since 2007.

The Korean hockey team is not expected to win a medal; both Koreas are ranked out of the world’s top 20. But its debut against Switzerland, which won bronze in the 2014 Olympics, had historic significance and symbolised fledgling unity between the rivals split along the world’s most heavily fortified border.

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The North initially had no athletes coming to the Olympics, but the International Olympic Committee allowed 22 as special entries. Twelve female hockey players joined the 23-person South Korean team.

The players have been the subject of intense scrutiny and the team was thrown together only two weeks ago, with limited time to practice. Two players, one South Korean and the other North Korean, appeared on the opening ceremony and climbed stairs together with the Olympic torch that they handed to Olympic champion figure skater Yuna Kim.

There was early criticism in South Korea that the new players would throw off team chemistry and cost South players time on the ice after working together for months to shine on the sport’s biggest stage. The team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, initially expressed frustration over a team assembled so close to the Olympics, but she has recently said she is happy with her new players on a team she says now feels like family.

“They are awesome. I really enjoy having them here,” Murray said after Friday’s training session. “We are excited for the tournament to get started.”

The Koreas often use sports to find a breakthrough in their strained relations. The ongoing rapprochement mood flared after Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s Day address that he was willing to send an Olympic delegation. Moon, a dove who wants to resolve the nuclear standoff diplomatically and peacefully, quickly responded to Kim’s outreach by offering talks.

Many experts say Kim’s overture is intended to use improved ties with Seoul as a way to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions toughened after its series of big weapons tests last year that include its sixth and largest nuclear test explosion and three intercontinental ballistic missile launches. Warming ties between the Koreas could complicate Seoul’s ties with Washington, which wants to maximise its pressures on Pyongyang.