Angry demonstrators stamped on a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un as a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team came together for the first time, losing 3-1 to Sweden in a practice match.
The unified team for the Pyeongchang Olympics is a product of a landmark deal between the two rivals following a year of high tensions over the nuclear-armed North’s weapons ambitions.
But the addition of North Korean players has provoked controversy in the South, with accusations that Seoul is depriving some of its own players of the chance to compete at a home Olympics for political purposes.
The joint team of North and South Korean female hockey players tested the ice for the first time in a warm-up match against Sweden, five days before the Winter Games officially open.
The 3,000-capacity crowd roared as the team — including four North Koreans — glided onto the ice at the Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon, wearing blue and red uniforms with KOREA emblazoned across their chests.
But outside the arena, security was tight as protesters faced off with supporters of the joint team, highlighting sharp divisions over the initiative.
Those in favour of the North Korean presence chanted “Peace Olympics”, while protesters just across the street shouted “Pyongyang Olympics,” suggesting the North had been allowed to hijack the Pyeongchang Games.
Dozens of protesters yelled criticisms of the North into speakers, trampling on a picture of leader Kim and ripping up blue and white unification flags.
“As a coach, it is hard to tell some of your players that you have been with for quite a long time that they are not going to be able to play, but the whole situation is out of our control. So we are trying to make the best out of it,” said Sarah Murray, South Korea’s Canadian coach.
– ‘Language is different’ –
“There are a lot of challenges with adding players so close to the Olympics.”
“Language is different. The meeting takes three times as long. It’s really hard when you have three different languages in one team,” she added, referring to the marked differences between the North Korean and South Korean dialects.
However, North Korean coach Pak Chol-Ho, was more upbeat.
“Through this game, I felt acutely that nothing is impossible if the North and South become one and do it together,” said Pak.
“I hope that we can gather our hearts and mind together in the short while and pull out a good outcome.”
The practice match against Sweden was the first — and only — match for the unified team since 12 North Koreans joined the southerners on January 25.
The unification flag hung next to the Swedish flag in the arena and the Korean folk song “Arirang”, which dates back more than 600 years, blared from the speakers instead of the national anthems of the two Koreas before the game.
Since the division of the peninsula the two Koreas have only competed as unified teams in 1991, when their women won the team gold at the world table tennis championship in Japan, and their under-19 footballers reached the world championship quarter-finals in Portugal.
The South Korean public has been heavily divided on the issue of the unified team, hitting the popularity of President Moon Jae-In, whose approval ratings have dipped below 60 percent — the lowest since he took office last May.
“The North Korean players try hard to adjust to our system so there are no big difficulties,” said South Korean player Park Jong-Ah.
North Korea’s Jong Su-Hyon added: “I believe that we can achieve a good outcome at every game if the North and South’s players gather strengths and minds together and run and run.”
The Korean team will play Switzerland in their opening game on February 10 in Group B, in which they will again face Sweden along with Japan.