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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Joint hockey team divides opinion in South Korea

Feb. 5, 2018

Hwangbo Young trains future Olympic hopefuls at a rink in the suburbs of Seoul. The coach understands how circumstances are different in the North and the South. As a player, she was a member of both countries' teams.

"North Korea doesn’t have indoor ice hockey facilities so they can only practice for a couple of months a year," she says. "There’s a big gap between those who practice every day, and those who don’t."

Hwangbo was born in North Korea. She was recruited to play hockey as a child. When she was 18, her family decided to flee the country for a better life. They defected to the South, where she resumed her hockey career. She would go on to captain the South Korean national team.

She doesn't believe a joint team will solve anything.

"South Korea is swayed by the North, and the North is exploiting the South for political gain," she says. "I believe the joint team will never bring peace or improve inter-Korean relations."

The North Korean hockey team arrived in the South late last month.

"I am delighted that the 2 Koreas will be fielding a joint team," the North Korean coach said. "We will put everything into winning."

The members of the joint team reflected his enthusiasm. They chanted, "We are united! We are united!"

They began training last week.

The historic agreement to field the joint team and to march under a united flag comes just weeks before the Games begin.

The decision was welcomed by South Korea's president. But many, including some of his supporters, oppose it.

"I think it's terrible that South Korea can't raise our own national flag in the Games," says a Seoul citizen in his 20s. "Our country is just giving in to the North without receiving anything back. This is a huge mistake by Moon Jae-in's administration."

The president's approval rating has dropped by about 5 percentage points since the team was announced.

And about 57,000 people have joined an online petition against the team.

"For athletes, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says another Seoul citizen in her 20s. "There’s not even a slight possibility that forming a joint team will lead to improving the inter-Korean relationship."

Despite her doubts, Hwangbo says she sympathizes with the athletes from the North. She even checked the list of players to see if she recognized any names.

"I feel pain when I see North Korean players in the South," she says. "They have done nothing wrong, but they're blamed and criticized. I hope they manage to do their best in the Olympics."

The team played a friendly match against Sweden on Sunday. 4 North Koreans were among the players on the joint team.

Before the game, a Korean folk song was played instead of a national anthem. "Arirang" is known throughout the peninsula. And a unification flag was raised alongside the Swedish flag. Nearly all of the arena's 3,000 seats were filled.

Sweden defeated the joint team, 3-1.

"I believe this game was a good opportunity to showcase the unified power of the North and South Korean players," one of the North Korean players said.

"The North Korean players learn quickly, they've been great to work with, they work really hard," coach Sarah Murray said. "I think tonight's game was a great effort from our team."

The joint team will play its first match of the Games against Switzerland on Saturday.

Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at Sogang University, joined Newsroom Tokyo live from the NHK studio in Seoul. He spoke to Hideki Nakayama and Aki Shibuya about the joint team's significance.

Nakayama: Professor, why do people in South Korea oppose the idea of a joint team?

Kim: South Koreans have mixed feelings about the joint Olympic team. Most people seem to oppose the idea. First, there is a perception that recent North Korean provocations have been just too much. Even those who have been sympathetic toward the North have turned their backs because of the continuous and very threatening nature of North Korean provocations. So they are asking, 'Why do we have this joint Olympic team when they are continuing to threaten us? Will this Olympics lead North Korea into the path of denuclearization?` These are the questions they are posing in South Korea. Second, to many younger generations in South Korea, fairness is a very important virtue, and they think that the North joining the team and being able to play without competition is like free riding. When the South Korea female hockey team had to endure severe competitions to quality and play, North Korean players are free riding on the opportunity. This is not fair, and I think it's important to note that among younger generations, President Moon Jae-in's approval rating has plummeted.

Shibuya: How about North Korea? What is Pyongyang trying to achieve?

Kim: What they are seeking is to take advantage of this opportunity. By participating in the Olympics, they are trying to impart a message to the international community that they are a normal country and they are a peace-loving and responsible member of the international community, because the international community in recent years has increasingly turned its back against the North Korean regime because of dangerous testing and provocations. And the second reason is by making peace gestures to the South Korean government, they are trying to drive a wedge between South Korea and the US. They are trying to ease sanctions by using South Korea. `We have participated in the winter Olympics as you wished, so in return you have to ease sanctions.`

Nakayama: There are signs North Korea could hold a military parade the day before the Games' opening ceremony. Why would they do that?

Kim: Holding a military parade is part of their traditional tactics to separate the decision to participate in the Olympics and the decision to retain nuclear weapons and missiles. They want to impart this message to South Korea and the US that, 'Sure, we decided to participate but that doesn't necessarily mean that we are trying to give up nuclear weapons and missiles. Don't take us wrong, we have no intention to denuclearize.` I think the intention is to impart this strong message to the international community that they have no intention of giving up nuclear weapons and missiles.

Nakayama: The Olympics have led to the reopening of inter-Korean talks, but only on a very limited scope of topics. What can we expect to happen in the near future?

Kim: It is very likely that South Korean President Moon Jae-in will try to capitalize on this momentum and to continue inter-Korean dialogue after the Olympics. And I think that eventually the inter-Korean dialogue will have to steer the North into the path of denuclearization, and during the New Year press conference, President Moon expressed that this is his wish, to link the Olympics to inter-Korean dialogue, to link the inter-Korean dialogue to denuclearization talks. But this seems to be wishful thinking at this moment. More than anything else, there is a wide gulf between North Korea’s position and the US position. North Korea wants to retain nuclear weapons and missiles and they are trying to hold arms reduction talks instead of denuclearization talks, but the US is adamant about holding denuclearization talks. The Trump administration has made it very clear that North Korea will have to bring denuclearization to the negotiation table. For the Moon government to bridge this gap seems to be a tall order.