South Korea Koreas Tension

Tensions between North Korea and South Korea are high. With multiple missile tests in 2017, North Korea is believed to have the capability to drop nuclear bombs on South Korea and Japan today.

The symbolic and real divide between North and South is the demilitarized zone, aka the DMZ – a 4-km wide no-man’s land that serves as a buffer between highly armed military forces on both sides. Families have been reunited through this land route from North to South. But in the times when athletes travel to events where both North and South Koreans compete, they have done so by sea or by air. Most recently, a South Korean women’s soccer team went to North Korea, and a North Korean women’s hockey team went to South Korea for respective tournaments.

When the PyeongChang Winter Games commence in February, 2018, North Korean athletes will walk through the DMZ for the first time, according to Lee Hee-beom, head of The PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (POCOG).

South Korea will welcome North Korea and when they decide to come, the South Korean government will allow them to come by road. And when they have supporting teams, the (South) Korean government will allow them to come by ship. All nations are very welcome, including North Korea and Russia. We want it to be the peace games.

No North Koreans have yet qualified for the PyeongChang Games, so it likely would not be a parade of athletes marching through the DMZ. But as Lee has said, the optics are the key. “Symbolically, to maintain peace in the Korean peninsula, their participation is very important, and for the success of the Olympic Games.”

I don’t know what it is like at the DMZ. But in June, 1985, I walked through a highly secured border checkpoint separating East and West Berlin, a place known then as Checkpoint Charley on the West Berlin side. I remember white walls and towers, military men with machine guns, and deathly silence. As a typical 22-year-old wise-cracking New Yorker, who liked to joke about everything, I found myself in a state of intense suppression, as I see in my diary of that time.

Checkpoint Charley on the eastern side is hardly intimidating in appearance, but you feel the intensity of the situation. You can’t take pictures, and for me the hardest part, you keep your snide remarks to yourself. There is dead silence as you walk through the cement corridors. A single watchtower glances at the grounds, but the electricity of the moment prevented me from snapping a noisy picture. The guard inside the customs office joked with Fenz, and that helped ease the tension, but the sensation of freedom was never so exhilarating when you realized that you were through. Violently spattered with graffiti, the wall (on the West Berlin side) remains a moving testament to the shackled human soul.

The Wall 3
Roy after walking through Checkpoint Charley to West Berlin and freedom
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Kim Song I
Kim Song I of North Korea
The woman in red from Japan is ranked 6th in the world. The woman in blue from North Korea is ranked 27th.

Kasumi Ishikawa of Yamaguchi, Japan was born to play table tennis. Her parents were both competitive table tennis players, and her sister is a table tennis professional. Kim Song I is from North Korea, and likely a beneficiary of considerable state resources to get her to the top levels of her sport. And when you watch table tennis at this level, you can see it’s not just a leisure cruise game – it is indeed a high performance sport.

With balls zipping at top speeds of 100 kph on the surface the size of a dinner table for six, supreme hand-eye coordination and strength are needed to receive and send the tiny plastic ball careening to an exact spot on the table, despite the sharpest of angles and heaviest of spins.

Ishikawa raced out to a 9-3 lead in the first game before winning 11-7. She crushed Kim again in the second game by the same score. Ishikawa’s top-spin slams were often too much for Kim, whose returns often went long.

It was 6:30 am Japan time Monday morning when I got on the machine at the gym, switched on the monitor to see what sport NHK would be broadcasting live, and this was the match. I thought, wow, Japan vs North Korea – that’s a compelling match in any competition. After all, these two countries….well, they don’t like each other. At that point, as I started my run, Ishikawa and Kim were tied 2 games apiece, heading into match 5.

While Kim had an early lead, Ishikawa eventually climbed back and was able to win game 5. When she won, she wasn’t as happy as I expected. That’s when I learned you need to win 4 out 7, not 3 of 5. Both players talked with their coaches, girding themselves for one more, maybe two more games.

My work-out done, I had to leave the gym. But I had assumed that Ishikawa would go on to win. And most experts probably also thought Ishikawa would as well. Apparently the first two rounds in the Olympic singles table tennis tournament are played by lower ranked players, while the seeded players like Ishikawa get a bye in those rounds. In other words, while Kim had to fight her way to the third round, Ishikawa was playing her first match. And apparently, in other matches, the top seeds mowed down the competition, most of them winning 4 games to none. The top seeded woman, Ding Ning of China, won her third-round debut in only 11 minutes.

TABLE TENNIS-OLY-2016-RIO
Japan’s Kasumi Ishikawa reacts after losing to North Korea’s Kim Song I in their women’s singles qualification round table tennis match at the Riocentro venue during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 7, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / Juan Mabromata
As I learned when I got home that night, the match between Ishikawa and Kim took an amazing 64 minutes. The contest was not only physically and mentally exhausting for the two athletes, it was a display of distinctively different styles. Ishikawa pummeled away with top-spin forehand smashes, while Kim endlessly defended with deft back-spin returns. Back and forth, back and forth they went – at times rallying for exquisitely long periods of nerve-wracking madness.

In the final game, with Kim leading 7-4, Ishikawa stopped playing. Her right leg was visibly cramping and Ishikawa was looking for an official stoppage of play, probably for treatment. The referee insisted she play on. However, the momentum had already switched to Kim, and Kim at this point was returning everything, and I mean everything. And the unforced errors for Ishikawa began to pile up.

In the end, after a suffocatingly tense hour, Song pulled off the upset, defeating Ichikawa four games to three: 7-11, 7-11, 11-9, 11-9, 9-11, 11-9, 11-8.

Outside of Japan and table tennis fans, I’m sure nobody noticed. But I did. And it was an amazing match.

CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1
CARTOON: Indonesia Withdraws from Tokyo Olympics, Warta Bhakti- 10 October 1964, p1

The day before the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, North Korea and Indonesia decided to boycott the Games. This decision was expected by many as the previous months had seen conflict between Indonesia and major international sports governing bodies.

Indonesia had hosted a regional sporting event called the Asian Games in 1962, refusing entry of athletes from Israel and Taiwan. As a result, The IOC (symbolized by IOC president Avery Brundage in the cartoons) suspended Indonesia, the first time they had ever done so. In reaction to that, Indonesia organized the GANEFO Games, “The Games of the New Emerging Forces”, which explicitly stated that politics and sports were intertwined.

CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964
CARTOON: Just wait until it collapses, Warta Bhakti- 26 September 1964

As the time got closer and closer to October 1964, Indonesia was getting impatient to receive formal indication from the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee (TOOC) that they would be allowed to participate in the Tokyo Olympics. Indonesia actually was invited to the Olympic Games, but were told by the IOC and TOOC as well as the international governing boards of swimming (FINA) and athletics (IAAF), that athletes who participated in the GANEFO Games could not participate in the Olympics.

CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti - 5 July 1964
CARTOON: We are Not Begging Tokyo, Warta Bhakti – 5 July 1964

On October 9, both North Korea and Indonesia decided to pull their entire teams out of Japan.

While it must have been an incredible disappointment to Indonesian athletes in Tokyo then told to return home on the eve of the Olympics, the press in Jakarta made it clear that the boycott was the right decision. The anti-IOC, anti-Western, anti-colonial backlash was

It’s spelled “Pyeongchang”, but apparently, IOC officials have taken to spelling it “PyeongChang”.

CamelCase strikes!

But why?

Map from the New York Times.
Map from the New York Times.

Who knows. I suspect the reason is – even if you had the slightest memory that PyeongChang was hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 2018, you might confuse it with Pyongyang in North Korea. In fact, according to this New York Times article, IOC members actually did confuse the two in the initial bid for the 2010 Winter Games.

So the host in 2018 is PyeongChang, South Korea, not PyongYang, North Korea. Having said that, PyeongChang is not far from North Korea, and a large number of its inhabitants had parents who escaped from North to South in the early 1950s, with the hopes that a resolution to the Korean War would allow them to return. Instead, they remained in the part of Korea that would continue to be one of the least developed in the country.

And yet, as time passed, Koreans appreciated more and more the winter beauty of the Gangwon Province, where Buddhist Temples and ski lifts abound. South Korean officials have been driving the vision that PyeongChang will again place South Korea on the map, completing a sporting cycle – hosting the track and field world championships, the World Cup and both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games – as well as revitalize a part of Korea that has languished economically.

While the mountain events will take place in PyeongChang proper, the indoor events will take place in Gangneung by the Eastern seaboard of Korea, about 30 kilometers away. Not only will world-class facilities be developed, a high-speed railway system is also being built to transport people between the two sporting venues in less than 30 minutes.

So remember, it’s PyeongChang, not Pyongyang, and it’s Gangneung, not Gangnam.