Women ice hockey players from North Korea and South Korea donned the same uniform Sunday as their countries momentarily set aside months of tensions on the peninsula over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile advancements.
After losing to Sweden, 1-3, in a friendly match ahead of this week’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the unified team held its first media briefing during which players were asked if there was enough time for the athletes to compete well.
“I’m confident that we can accomplish much if we athletes from the North and the South put all our energy and mind to playing together,” North Korean hockey player Jong Su Hyon said.
Both countries may be counting on sports diplomacy to work some magic as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un steps up his tests of longer-range missiles, leading U.S. President Donald Trump to threaten a military strike to prevent Kim developing a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the east coast of America.
Tensions remain high heading into the games. North Korea on Sunday denounced Trump’s recent state of the union speech as the “height of arrogance” and criticized the U.S. for trying to create division between the two Koreas.
“All facts go to clearly prove that the U.S. is getting crazy to chill the atmosphere of improving North-South relations created by positive measures and proactive role of the DPRK,” the state-run Korean Central News Agency said, using the initials for the formal name for North Korea.
In South Korea, the North Korean athletes attracted a frenzy of attention ahead of the start of the Olympics on Friday. “Is this Pyeongchang Olympics or Pyongyang Olympics?” asked Kwak Soo-dong, a long-time restaurant owner in Gangneung, the site of indoor Olympic events.
At the Olympic Athletes’ Village in Gangneung, a three-story-tall North Korean flag hung from an athlete’s balcony.
The largest media draw so far was for a training session held Saturday by North Korean figure skaters Kim Ju Sik and Ryom Tae Ok. Of the 22 North Korean athletes taking part, only Kim and Ryom qualified for the Olympics. Others were invited by the International Olympic Committee. None are expected to be in contention for a medal.
After the pair finished practice, scores of reporters surrounded them. “I’m pleasant,” a smiling Ryom said in response to a shouted question on how she was feeling and how her practice had gone. Her coach said the team felt welcomed, before she escorted the skaters away.
Even practice sessions by little known North Korean speed skaters led South Korean news broadcasts, which repeatedly aired a video of a North Korean short-track skater falling and slamming against the rink wall.