International Ice Hockey Federation

Bridging borders

Bridging borders

How North & South unite in hockey

Published 15.08.2018 16:17 GMT+11 | Author Andy Potts
Bridging borders
Unified Korea and torch bearers at the press conference: Su Yuon Jung is the North Korean player with the biggest ice time, Jongah Park from South Korea is the team captain. Photo: Martin Merk
The Unified Korean team left its on-ice struggles behind to celebrate the success of a unique sporting project that brings together two divided nations.

Korea’s Olympic hockey debut did not exactly go to plan on the ice, as Switzerland emphatically crashed the party with an 8-0 victory at the Kwandong Hockey Arena. But the unified team was always about far more than just sport, and after the game the players and coaches offered some unique insights into the, suddenly, fast-developing relations between North and South on the ice.

It’s rare to hear from athletes from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who normally don’t speak and pass by the interview zone. So it was no surprise that a post-game press conference featuring Su Hyon Jung from North Korea attracted a big crowd. Jung was flanked by team captain Jongah Park, a day after the pair had carried the Olympic torch to the cauldron during the opening ceremony.

That was a big moment for both – they spoke of their pride, and Park added: “It made it even more special to go [to the cauldron] hand-in-hand with a fellow athlete from the North.”

But it was the raucous, capacity crowd that made the greatest impression on both players when Unified Korea took to the ice against the Swiss.

“We had the greatest support from the people in the stadium,” said Jong. “Unfortunately we were not able to live up to their expectations, but we did our best. In that atmosphere, it felt like I was playing in my own country.”

For Park, the size of the crowd was an entirely new experience. “I’ve never played in front of so many people before, so I felt a bit nervous,” she said. “I also worried that my team-mates would get nervous.

“This was a game that all of South Korea was waiting for, so I felt some pressure.”

The crowd included a large delegation of senior officials from both sides of the border, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, IOC President Thomas Bach and two high-ranked politicians from the North with formal head of state Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-jong, the sister of the country’s leader Kim Jong-un.

For Jong, playing in front of her country’s leaders was “the greatest honour of my life”. She also recalled the words of Bach at an impromptu post-game ceremony. “He said that winning and losing may be important, but the most important thing is that one Korea works for one goal.”

President Moon also congratulated the team for its efforts, although in a noisy arena the players admitted that it was hard to hear everything that was said.

The event organisers warned that questions about politics making the players uncomfortable might not be accepted, and a query about the team’s potential legacy for North-South relations was resolutely blocked by Jung. “I’m an athlete,” she said. “I can’t really answer that question. I’m just here to focus on sport.”

And politics was largely absent from the comments from other players in Saturday’s game. Instead, they painted a picture of a team bonding over tales of friends and family, or sharing training tips.

Hyein Ko said: “[The North Koreans] especially try to talk to us about our drills, so we talk to each other about that. And they ask about how many members are in our families, and whether we have boyfriends!” While avoiding political discussion.

Sarah Murray, Korea’s Canadian head coach, was also encouraged by the burgeoning relationship between the two groups of players – and saw signs of progress despite working together for barely three weeks since the IOC agreed to allow a Unified team to appear in PyeongChang following discussions between the governments of the two Koreas about the north’s participation in PyeongChang 2018 including the unified women’s ice hockey team.

"I think the North Koreans are improving dramatically,” she said.

"The chemistry on the team is better than I could have ever predicted. They laugh together, they eat meals together, I’ll walk into the locker room and they're all laughing together.

"You can’t tell who’s from the north and who’s from the south. They’re just girls playing hockey."

The next challenge for Korea is to try to get results against Sweden and Japan in its remaining Group B games. For Park, improved defence is likely to be crucial. “We thought we had built up our defence, but on Saturday we learned that we have to be stronger,” she said. “We’ll hope to do that better in our remaining games.”

And Jong is confident that the team will continue to play as one, despite its diverse backgrounds.

“I think all the athletes, from North and South, thought the same thing,” she said. “We had one heart and we wanted to play our best game. No individual athlete took any liberties, or failed to co-operate with the team.”


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