North and South Korean Athletes Unify on the Ice for Women's Hockey Team

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterFebruary 13, 2018

In this photo taken Sept. 24, 2017, South Kore;s Marissa Brandt yells instructions to teammates as they play Minnesota in the second period of an exhibition hockey game in Minneapolis. Marissa, a native Korean who was adopted as an infant by parents in Minnesota, and her sister Hannah will both be playing in the upcoming Winter Olympics in women's hockey. Marissa for South Korea and Hannah for the U.S. (AP Photo/John Autey)
John Autey/Associated Press

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — They decided to tape over the flags when the North Koreans joined. The news shocked them as much as anyone else, but it quickly became their day-to-day reality.

The North Koreans were going to be arriving the next day to join their Olympic hockey team, and while the news was unexpected, the South Korean women needed to make every effort to help the North Koreans know they were in this together.

The gear, of course, had already come in weeks before, the country's white, red and blue flag sewn into everything from their jackets to their gloves. They needed to cover it up because the flag didn't represent their team anymore.

"We couldn't be brandishing South Korean flags anymore," forward Caroline Park said. "That's one thing we wanted to do to make sure everyone feels we're unified. Trying to be as inclusive as possible, covering up that flag."

The DIY-ness of it all—the last-minute duct tape covering the flags on their gloves, the unified flag patches added to the team's gear—mirrored the job that suddenly faced Korea head coach Sarah Murray. The 29-year-old Canadian now had to achieve, on the ice at least, a task world diplomats haven't been able to achieve for more than 60 years: unite the North and South on the Korean peninsula. With less than a month before the games kicked off, Murray needed to integrate 12 North Koreans into a team that already included 23 South Koreans.

Lee Jin-man/Associated Press

Murray expressed trepidation about it from the beginning, telling reporters she had "mixed feelings" about the unified team.

There were so many unanswered questions. How good would the players be? How quickly would they be able to adjust to the South Koreans' playing style? How many could keep up?

There were obviously the potential political motivations of the North Korean organizers, that joining the two teams would gain unearned goodwill for a dictatorship known for its human rights atrocities, that acknowledging the positive foot put forward by Kim Jong Un would only further enable a charm offensive.

All of that was on top of the challenges Murray knew would come up without notice. Worst-case scenario, she thought, the two teams would be a false symbol of unity, not talking to each other or spending real time together. She worried the combined countries would be more cosmetic symbol than actual team. The two teams were already not staying in the same building in the media village and had to take two different buses to the facilities.

But in Olympic storybook fashion, the new teammates instead seemed to bond.

Almost immediately, the team began to eat meals together. In the locker room, the North Koreans were mixed among the South Koreans. They began to conquer the language barriers that face the team, bridging communication between the South Koreans and the North Koreans, whose dialect has drastically diverged since the countries split, and the Koreans who primarily speak English.

At one meal, Murray noticed defenseman Marissa Brandt, playing for the country under her birth name, Park Yoonjung, and a North Korean player using their hands to talk to one another, ending the conversation with a hug.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

"To see them together at meals, laughing and joking, they're just girls," Murray said. "It's really special to see."

In the team's debut Saturday against Switzerland, four North Korean players suited up, with Han Soo-jin hitting the crossbar on one of the team's eight shots in an 8-0 loss at Kwandong Hockey Centre.

The game was never much of a competition, with the Swiss outshooting their opponents by 44 and most of the Koreans' shots coming from just past the blue line, without much of a chance of hitting the twine.

"I don't think they've ever seen this much speed on the ice," said Im Danelle, a Toronto native representing South Korea, talking about her North Korean teammates. "That's something they're going to have to adjust to, but they're doing a great job."

The political overtones, of course, are as unavoidable as The Rock in a summer blockbuster. Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, surprised many by making an appearance at the Koreans' hockey game, accompanied by 230 North Korean cheerleaders, dubbed the "army of beauties" by the South Korean media.

On the surface, much of what the North Koreans are putting forward directly contradicts their reputation. Kim Yo Jong's smile and handshake with Korean President Moon Jae-in appears like a departure from the reputation of the cruel dictatorship.

During Saturday's hockey match, the North Korean cheerleaders continually sang over the mostly Western music played during intermission. They sang "Unify the motherland!" as South Korean entertainers covered "Uptown Funk." They made choreographed motions while performing North Korean folk songs, as Kanye West's "Stronger" reverberated through the arena.

North Korean cheerleaders attend the women's preliminary round ice hockey match between Sweden and Unified Korea during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung on February 12, 2018.   / AFP PHOTO / Ed JONES
ED JONES/Getty Images

They cheered whenever the Korean hockey team touched the puck, regardless of the situation. They maintained a single, consistent level of excitement, as if preprogrammed, their cheers never becoming more positive or more negative. With the score 8-0 and a minute-and-a-half left in the game, the cheerleaders, on cue from their leaders, chanted, "Let's win! Let's win! Let's win!"

The team knows everyone is watching. The mixed zone after the loss to Switzerland barely contained the nearly 100 reporters hoping to get a glimpse of the team. The players openly admit to the pressures of the extra eyes as well, some coming from the highest political offices in the world.

"This is my first Olympics, and I think taking it all in, we are all a little nervous," goalie Shin So Jung said in Korean. "We heard the cheerleaders, and it's not just the president that has interest in us. So many people are watching us now, and we know that. We want to play better for them. We don't want to disappoint them, but the results haven't turned out the way we wanted. We feel a little sad about it. We've been a team together for about a week. We are one team, so we're trying to be one team as well as possible."

Look past all the fireworks, cheerleaders and bluster. The bonds between the non-politicians, the hockey players sharing the ice under one flag, tell a different story, the one of what might happen should the Korean peninsula reunite one day.

"I think we're stronger together than we're divided," said North Korean player Jong Su Hyon in Korean. "As one unified team, I hope we can continue to train together. I think we will excel together as one unified team, not just in sport, but in other areas as well."

The day after the team's loss, Korea goaltending coach Rebecca Baker worked with Jung on her goaltending at the Kwandong Training Rink, setting up an iPad to record video. Assistant coaches Kim Doyun, from the South, and Pak Chol Ho, from the North, assisted alongside, passing and shooting the puck on the netminder.

Murray credits Pak as one of the major reasons the team has been able to bond quickly. He's accepted nearly any suggestion from the head coach and guided his players from the North to bond with those from the South. In the early days of practice, Pak remained a silent presence with all of the corporate logos on his clothing covered, unlike the logos Murray and Kim display.

On Sunday, as Baker worked with Jung individually, Kim and Pak skated down to the other end of the ice and began shooting pucks at the open net, some of which crashed into the glass behind it. They met up near the blue line and began to talk hockey, laughing over something.

Their countries have been divided for 60 years and counting now, but somehow, they have found themselves in the exact same place, aiming at a singular goal in a world where unity doesn't yet exist.