Dignitaries at the Womens Ice Hockey match between Korea and Switzerland
From the fourth from the left in the third row) South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Kim Young-nam, President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un are seen watching the two Korea’s joint women’s ice hockey team on Feb. 10, 2018. (Yonhap)

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yong-un, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were there. So was IOC president Thomas Bach and the North Korean cheerleading squad. Everybody who is somebody wanted to be there. I wanted to be there but alas….

Instead, I was on buses on my long journey’s home back from the short track speed skating competitions, fortunate that the buses had wide-screen TVs at the front, and had the ice hockey match of the year on.

It’s well known that the governments of North and South Korea agreed to jointly march in the opening ceremonies of the PyeongChang Olympics. But in the competitions, the South Koreans are represented by the South Korean flag, and the North Koreans by the North Korean flag…with one exception. The governments agreed to field a joint women’s ice hockey team composed of both South and North Koreans, and that a minimum of three North Koreans would actually have to play.

Sarah Murray during the historic Korea-Swiss match
Sarah Murray during the historic Korea-Swiss match

This understandably upset the coach, Sarah Murray, the members of the South Korean ice hockey team, and a lot of people who do not like North Korea. But the powers that be won out on this decision, and history was made on February 10, 2018 at Kwandong Hockey Center in Gangneung as Team Korea took the ice.

Unfortunately, that’s about all they did.

It could have been far worse. The 8-0 score at the end of the Korea-Switzerland women’s ice hockey match emphasized the total dominance that Team Switzerland had over the hosts. I only watched the end of the second period and most of the third period, and what I saw was a Korean team that could barely keep the puck on their sticks. Their checking was non-existent, their stick control was fleeting, their placement on the ice was haphazard, and what few shots they got off were weak. Even on their power plays, they look shorthanded.

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Shin So-jung, goalie of Team Korea

On the flip side, Team Switzerland, #6 in the world, skated with ease, setting up shots as if they were pros playing high school kids desperately trying to keep up.

The score could easily have been 10-0, heck 12-0, if not for the goaltender for Team Korea, Shin So-jung. While the crowd pleaded Team Korea to get a goal, the cheers should have been for some incredible stops by the Korean minding the net. She positioned herself well for most of the play, which was almost all in her end, and made some great stops, particularly with her leg pads. In the end, Shin had an incredible 44 saves on the night.

After the match, asked about her upcoming matches with Japan and Sweden, she said “I have to be better than today. I hope I can relax and try to give my best.”

But her counterpart on the Swiss side, Florence Schelling, was reported to say in a tweet the International Ice Hockey Federation, “Hats off to her.”

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Team Korea will not win a match. With only two weeks of preparation to meld the new team members, Team Korea’s head coach Murray, has been critical of the last-minute decision to shake up the team dynamics. But she’s looking forward.

“We definitely think we have a chance in the next two games,” she said. “So we are forgetting about this game and moving forward. We got the nerves out.”

No matter how poorly Team Korea does during the Olympiad, it will continue to capture the imagination of the Korean Peninsula. Who knows what will happen if they score a goal? If they win a match, it may be pandemonium.

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It’s only 80 kilometers away. The Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is as far away as many of your car commutes, and yet in the gaiety of the Olympic Games, you forget that military on both sides of the DMZ are at the ready just in case.

And like the DMZ that separates North and South Korea, there is a social DMZ that separates those in Korea who seek reunification, and those who seek to destroy North Korea. That drama played out on Friday, February 9, 2018, hours before the commencement of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics.

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From the morning, demonstrators carrying flags of South Korea and the United States played loud music and made strident speeches, denouncing the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and very specifically requesting the United States to give a friend a hand. As the poster says:

“We, the South Koreans urge the United States to conduct an immediate preemptive strike on North Korea!”

These anti-North Korean demonstrators were dressed in heavy down jackets, and the average age was easily over fifty.

Also from the morning, about half a kilometer away, demonstrators sporting the blue-on-white reunification flag of Korea were advocating for unity and peace. These group was decidedly younger, many of them appearing to be in their twenties, most of them synchronized in matching white down coats and blue hats. Their posters were decidedly more conciliatory in tone:

White poster: We support peace (between N and S Korea), and joining under one-Korean flag. Welcome North Korean team! Congratulations on the Joint North-South entrance in opening ceremony! This is the Realization of the Peace Olympics.

Blue poster: We enthusiastically welcome our North Korea family.

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And so, a little over three hours before the 8 pm start of the opening ceremonies, the two sides were drawn irresistibly together. As I turned to leave the anti-North Korean protests, which featured impassioned ripping apart of images of Kim Jong-un, I noticed up the path I was walking the blue hats of the pro-unification supporters. I did a 180, wondering what would happen….the scene from West Side Story as the Jets and the Sharks approach each other for their rumble, coming to mind.

When the blue hats reached the rotary, the younger members in their white coats gathered in the middle rotary….and did what they do best. Sing and dance. The rumble was on.

Thankfully, this was a peaceful rumble. People on both sides stayed on their own side. The Opening Ceremony started on time without controversy, and athletes from both South and North Korea entered into a raucous stadium together, waving the blue-on-white.

On the whole, surveys indicate that slightly more South Koreans are against the unified team, than for it. The emotions run deep.

But for one night, there was unity.

 

Hyon Song Wol
Hyon Song Wol of the North Korean delegation

K-Pop’s really popular all over Asia. But how about NK-Pop?

Thanks to a recent rapprochement by the two Koreas, North and South Korea will unite under the name “Korea” at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. In addition to a figure skating duo which had actually qualified for the Games, an additional 22 athletes will be added to the roster of participating athletes.

A stunning turn of events only weeks before the commencement of the Games, the governments of North and South Korea are working to de-escalate the tension that has risen in the second half of 2017, as test missiles from North Korea flew menacingly close to Japan, and antagonistic words between the American and North Korean leaders were exchanged.

South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, has been actively seeking to bring North Korea to the table, and to the PyeongChang Olympics. On January 18, 2018, weeks before the Winter Games start on February 8, the two sides negotiated the presence of not only athletes and officials in PyeongChang, but also a wide variety of teams that would serve to promote North Korean arts, sports and of course, the government leadership. That includes a team of taekwondo athletes, which of course won’t compete because it’s not the Summer Games, but instead will perform in demonstrations.

Participants at the PyeongChang Winter Games will be graced by the presence of the so-called “Army of Beauties,” a hand-picked cheering squad of 230 women who will chant, sing and cheer at the Games opening ceremonies, among other events.

The Samjiyon Art Troupe, an all-purpose group of 140 singers, dancers and orchestral members will also perform during the Olympics. This particular group is led by Hyon Song Wol, who is the leader of the Moranbong Band, an all-female band that is more well known, and has been performing pop rock since 2012. It is reported that North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, helped establish the band.

Hyon is no ordinary musician. She was a member of North Korea’s delegation visiting South Korea for the rapprochement talks, and is perceived to be close to Kim Jong-un. There have even been rumors that she was romantically involved with Kim before he became North Korea’s supreme leader.

Rumors don’t stop there regarding Hyon. It was believed in 2014 that Hyon was dead, executed by the hand of the State, for the charge of – wait for it – starring in a pornographic films. The rumors of her demise were apparently greatly exaggerated. Today, Hyon appears to wield significant political influence. And at the opening ceremonies of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Hyon and the Samjiyon Art Troupe will take the spotlight on the biggest stage in sports.