North, South Korea hockey players team up for Olympics

The Korean players later shouted “We are one!” North and South Korean players plan to practice separately for several days and start a joint practice sometime next week.

North Korean women players (left) are welcomed by their South Korean counterparts during a ceremony at South Korea's national training centre.   -  Getty Images

Female hockey players from the rival Koreas were paired up with each other today to form their first-ever Olympic squad during next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 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 today, as about 30-40 conservative activists shouted anti-Pyongyang slogans at a nearby border area.

The North Koreans traveled 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 flower bouquets in an outdoor welcoming ceremony.

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“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, responded by saying he’s 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 bus carrying North Korea players at the CIQ (Customs, Immigration and Quarantine) office near the Demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating South and North Korea.   -  Getty Images

 

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.

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But this is the first time they’ve assembled a single team for the Olympics.

The Koreas explored how to cooperate in 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 Feb. 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 U.S.-led international sanctions.

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 speed skating, Alpine skiing and cross-country skiing. They will come to South Korea on Feb. 1.

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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 Feb. 10. It will then ace Sweden on Feb. 12 and Japan on Feb. 14.