Sport an afterthought as Unified women's team takes the ice

North Korean players joined the South Korean squad just last month, as coaches scrambled to work on the team's on-ice chemistry ahead of the Games. AFP/Getty Images

GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- They lined the streets here in the cold on Saturday, waving and cheering and shouting out, "We are one!" as the team bus roared past. They poured into the tiny Kwandong Hockey Center, a nondescript arena tucked beside a university, carrying signs that said "Peace Olympics" and wearing headbands topped with jiggling flags. They shrieked in excitement as the puck dropped and a historic team stepped forward into an unprecedented night.


Well, then the people watched their team get shredded. But the fans of this joint Korean women's hockey team, a team that was created by politicians at the 11th hour as part of North Korea's participation in these Winter Olympics, were not expecting much on the ice. The South Korean team was low-ranked on its own, and the introduction of North Koreans just days before the Games began did not help. On Saturday, Switzerland, a team with plenty of talent and ranked sixth in the world, had 52 shots on goal (to just eight for Korea) and won easily, 8-0.

Given that imbalance, Korean fans cheered other things: good passes, for example, or a bit of skillful stickhandling. Forays into Switzerland's end prompted breathless shouts and the rare Korean attacks on goal were cause for celebration. When Han Soo-jin jumped on a turnover, broke in and had her shot ricochet off the post, it was nothing short of collective euphoria.

Of course, some would say the more important developments were taking place in the VIP box. There, at the end of a day of remarkable diplomacy, was the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, as well as Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and one of his closest advisers. Earlier, Moon had hosted Kim Yo Jong and other North Korean officials at the presidential mansion for what was described as a friendly lunch where she offered Moon an official invitation to visit Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang.

What does it all mean? That part is yet to be determined, as politicians, analysts and curious citizens debate whether the North Koreans' amicable presence at these Olympics is legitimate or simply the latest version of a "charm offensive" from the dictatorship, a calculated move designed to engender global support and separate South Korea from its alliance with the United States.

Unification, too, isn't quite as clear-cut an issue as it might appear on the flag this Korean team is using (a white background with a rendering of an undivided peninsula in blue).

According to numerous surveys, support among South Koreans for unification with the North has dropped considerably year over year, with the majority of young South Koreans opposing the notion. Public reaction when the joint hockey team was announced was considerably mixed, and Moon's approval rating fell 6 percentage points.

The overwhelming feeling here on Saturday, though, was one of unity. Nearly 200 female members of the North Korean cheerleading regime -- a handpicked group designed to be an appealing propaganda arm of the ruling party -- chanted and sang (and did the wave on several occasions) while other fans clapped along in between Switzerland's offensive barrages.

"I think this is a meaningful night for our country," said Eun Sung Kim, a 24-year-old from Yeosu, who added he was "proud" to support the Unified team because he hopes the group will inspire progress toward reconciliation. The Koreas are technically still at war, as a truce -- and not a peace treaty -- ended combat between the countries in 1953.

"All of history that we know starts with very small things, something little," Kim said. "This team could be very important to what happens here."

Sarah Murray, the Canadian coach of the Korean team, said she and her staff have intentionally played down the historic nature of the team since the players are facing enough challenges with the late addition of the North Korean players. Communication is perhaps the biggest problem, as the South Koreans use a lot of sport-specific slang, as well as English words, which the North Koreans cannot follow.

"We try not to add more stress than there needs to be," Murray said.

That is understandable, but the context is impossible to ignore. After the game Saturday, the team stood on the ice as Moon, Kim Yo Jong, IOC president Thomas Bach and other government officials perched on the bench for a short meeting.

Moon and Bach offered messages of encouragement, imploring the players to move beyond the results and understand the meaning of what they were doing.

"We know," Danelle Im, a Korean forward, said. "We know this is more than just a game."