Unified Korean Hockey Team Finishes Winless. So Why All the Cheering?

The stands, mostly filled with organized groups of students and local government workers, waved a sea of flags bearing the map of the unified Korean Peninsula, the one inherently political emblem permitted at the Games.

And despite the conspicuous absence of the North Korean cheerleaders, who had inspired intense fascination at previous games, the South Korean fans kept up buoyant chants of “Be strong!” and “Win, Korea, Win!” throughout the matchup.

“The North Korean cheerleaders seem like very talented young women and seem like they work very hard on their choreographed dancing,” said Randi Heesoo Griffin, who scored the team’s other Olympic goal in the matchup with Japan. “But to be honest, sometimes I felt like maybe they weren’t here for us.”

She added: “Today it was a great feeling to feel like maybe the fans that were here cheering for us were really cheering for us. They were cheering for a hockey game and a hockey team, and I really appreciated that.”

Once the two Koreas decided to combine rosters, the team, made up not only of players from North and South Korea but teammates who had naturalized as South Korean citizens to play on the team, embodied hopes that cooperation at the Games might help soothe tensions on the peninsula. A standoff over the North’s nuclear program has stoked fears of war.

At the beginning, it was a tough pill to swallow for South Korean team members who had played together since 2013 and were suddenly forced to integrate a dozen additional players less than a month before the Games began.

Murray acknowledged that merging the two sides, dealing with language barriers and trying to retrofit game plans for new team members was difficult.

“It was tough on both sides,” Murray said. But “after this game, I felt that there was nothing we could change, and I felt the players should have no regrets. We did our very best.”

After the game ended, the Korean team remained on the ice after the Swedish team left and stood in a circle in the middle of the rink. The players slammed their sticks onto the ice and the crowd erupted into chants of “We are one!”

As they skated around the rink to salute the fans, the theme song from the 1988 Seoul Olympics, “Hand in Hand,” boomed throughout the arena.

Even without any wins, some spectators saw the team as having scored a small diplomatic victory.

“As North and South Korean players work together in harmony, I believe this can be connected to the unification process in Korea,” said Park Sun-hwa, 30, a teacher who had taken the day off to attend the game. “Since the North Korean and South Korean people have so few chances to meet each other, this team has provided the chance for both players and spectators to meet each other.”

Photo

Fans of the unified Korean team shouted “Be strong!” and “Win, Korea, Win!” throughout the game.

Credit
Hilary Swift for The New York Times

She continued, “We will learn about the differences in our cultures, but also we can learn how to improve our relationship.”

According to polls in South Korea, support for the unified team, which was decidedly mixed before the Games, rose over the course of the week in which the women played together.

“They lost the games, but I think what we need to focus on is the small steps of peacemaking and the mutual understanding of each other,” said Jay Song, a senior lecturer at the Asia Institute of the University of Melbourne in Australia.

Some of the players expressed that optimism.

“Over all, all of the North Korean athletes are bright and innocent, so the whole atmosphere among us is cheerful,” Han said after Tuesday’s game. “I can’t name one or two with whom I made friends, but we all get along.”

In another news conference after Korea’s game against Japan, Griffin looked slightly weary of multiple questions about her North Korean teammates.

“We sit in the dining hall and have conversations just pretty much about every day,’’ she said, adding that the topics include “talking about food or who has boyfriends. So, you know, they’re just people.”

But after Tuesday’s final game, Griffin said that combining the teams was “a complex experience. There’s a lot of different layers to it. And that’s really all I can say.”

As for whether the team would have performed better without the North Korean teammates, Griffin said: “It’s really impossible to say. We have a sample size of one. The Olympics only happened once, and we can’t do a side-by-side comparison, so I have no idea.”

Skeptics said that the North Korean delegation at the Olympics amounted to nothing more than a political charade.

“I am absolutely positive they have received extensive training on how to come off as a ‘normal girl’ with shared ethnic passion and passion for sports,” said Jieun Baek, a doctoral candidate in public policy at the University of Oxford and author of “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution.”

“They are trying to do their own diplomatic act with the other athletes,” Baek added.

The North Koreans have said very little during their Olympic stint. At Tuesday’s game, about 10 North Korean officials, wearing red-and-white track suits with “DPRKorea” emblazoned on the back, sat in a row high up in the arena.

When approached, a South Korean woman who declined to give her name and said she had been assigned to guard the North Koreans, held up her hands in the sign of an “X.”

“No interviews,” she said.

Some spectators said they believed that the North Koreans had simply hijacked South Korea’s hardworking women’s hockey team.

“I feel very angry and disappointed,” said Kim Min-cheol, 50, a fan who purchased his ticket to Tuesday’s game before the unified team was formed. “I believe that after the Olympics end, Kim Jong-un will probably conduct more missile tests and make the relationship more tense again.”

During a visit to the presidential palace the day after the opening ceremony, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, presented an invitation to Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s president, to visit Pyongyang for a summit meeting.

But on Tuesday, the South Korean government reiterated its plans to conduct postponed military exercises with the United States at some point after the Games end, a move that could undermine any Olympic détente.

Whatever the diplomatic fallout, some players had bittersweet feelings about saying farewell to their North Korean teammates.

“Regardless of politics or whatnot, we met the North Korean athletes, we played sports together and ate together,” Han said. “That’s why I will be sorry to say goodbye.”

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