How South Korea's hockey team really feels about teaming up with the North

Justin Cuthbert
South Korea’s women’s Olympic team has, in large part, embraced the directive handed down from beyond its sports ministry.
South Korea’s women’s Olympic team has, in large part, embraced the directive handed down from beyond its sports ministry.

Last week, members of South Korea’s Olympic Women’s Hockey team packed up their bags, sticks and belongings and moved into a new dressing room, this one several stalls larger. The transition was to make room for 12 players imposed on their roster from North Korea — the neighbouring nation that has presented conflict at their own border, and large parts of the world, for a lifetime.

Then they took to the ice with no choice but to try their best to quickly integrate the systems and tactics they’ve been working to refine for the last four years. This, in order to bridge the talent discrepancy against visiting powers from around the world at the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.

They did so understanding that they were being used in a political plot, that their once-in-a-lifetime Olympic experience was being manipulated to serve as a reference point as part of a greater peace initiative launched in haste earlier this month.

And they did so purposely, eagerly.

This is to say, the apparent imposition and wide range of inconveniences tied to having a half roster from a rival national team dropped on their lap merely days before the Olympics began is based on assumption.

In reality, South Korea’s Olympic athletes have, in large part, embraced this arrangement. At the most basic level, it’s because only three North Korean athletes must dress for each game, meaning the influx won’t have a significant impact on team dynamics. But, more importantly, the South Koreans recognize it means their Olympic experience has taken on a far deeper importance.

“This is a historic thing,” said Caroline Park, a forward on the newly-branded unified Korean team. “It’s really cool to be a part of it. And this is not an opportunity we would normally get, so I’m trying to embrace it and learn as much as I can.”

Park is a Korean-Canadian athlete who, like several members of the South Korean Women’s National Team, was offered the Olympic dream in an inquiring email from the Korean Ice Hockey Federation. She boarded a plane within a few weeks of reading the surprise message for her first trip to the country that her parents came from, completing the initial sacrifice across a range that includes delaying the already extensive process of completing medical school, to singing the national anthem in front of a panel as part of the requisite to earn her second passport.

She did it all and more for the promise of the Olympic experience.

These were ultimately small concessions for Park. Asked what would give her more pride, adding “Olympian” or “Doctor” to the front of her name, Park replied the former with barely a moment’s hesitation.

It’s what she always dreamed about, but never believed was possible before opening that email. And even for a little bit after until she was convinced it was real.

Expanding the roster by 12 slots to 35 won’t take this away from Park. And given her importance to the team, it’s unlikely that her role would be affected by the team’s talent pool being diluted. She isn’t a player in danger of losing out on the competitive aspect of the Olympic Games.

Still, one must wonder, after making such an investment to the program, if she felt her Olympic experience was being suddenly devalued. What made her journey, the one she’s shared with her teammates, ostensibly less important than, say the men, that it was the one exploited to carry out a political agenda?

“It’s easy to be shortsighted,” Park said, “to think about the immediate future, the games, and who’s going to dress. But when you take a step back from it, think about the big picture, think about the purpose of the Olympics and sport, it’s really cool.

“It’s what makes me appreciate the situation more.”

In Park’s view, the South Koreans have actually had it pretty easy since the message was handed down from their sports ministry. Sharing their playbook with 12 new athletes is, if anything, another exercise in preparation for their Olympic debut Feb. 10 versus Switzerland.

Who’s managed the situation with aplomb, Park explains, is Sarah Murray — a dual Canadian-American who in this context rather appropriately coaches Korea’s unified team.

“She’s done a great job. It was all thrown on her last minute as well. She handled it very professionally,” Park said. “She kept the team informed, and helped the North Koreans get acclimated and adjusted.

“She stepped up, gave them the extra love they probably needed to feel like part of the team.”

Park gives full credit, too, to the North Koreans taking a similar directive. She’s been struck by the determination the girls show in practice and the mindset they have brought to what began as a difficult situation for all. She says her long-time teammates have learned a lot from their former rivals, namely their hard work and willingness to block shots and sacrifice their bodies.

Once an outsider in a room that she now helps govern, it’s a situation Park’s quickly been able to place into proper perspective.

“You have to think about it from their point of view. They were just thrown into this too. It’s not like they knew it was happening. You just try to build the bonds with the other players because at the end of the day we are playing on one team, so regardless if you’re for or against it, either way, you have to try to make it work.”

The Unified Korean National Team is still practising on something of a tryout basis, their roster for the Swiss yet to be finalized.

That means the disappointment tied to this mandate remains imminent for several South Koreans who have waited all this time for the opportunity to compete at the highest level of their sport.

Maybe then resentment will set in for some. Until that point, in their 35-seat locker room, girls from both sides of the Korean border will continue building on their partnership.

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