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The Mixed Korean Hockey Team Takes To The Ice

Feb 11, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The world watched last week as North and South Korean athletes marched together at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. And in the stands, dignitaries from both countries cheered as their combined women's hockey team took on Switzerland. The Korean team lost 8-0, but NPR's Elise Hu reports there may be an opportunity for a deeper dialogue off the rink.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: By the time their nations' unified team took the ice...

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, it's time for the starting lineup for Team Korea.

HU: ...The South Korean president and his North Korean guests in the audience had already shared a long day of bonding. President Moon Jae-in welcomed for lunch the North Korean ceremonial leader Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korea's dynastic dictator. The visitors delivered a message that made major news. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un invited President Moon to his Capitol for a state visit. It would mark the first meeting between two Korean heads of state in more than a decade.

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HU: When the North and South Korean politicians showed up at the hockey game together, the symbolism kept coming.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Korean).

HU: Chants of stay strong, stay strong came from seated North Korean cheering squads in red tracksuits. They waved white flags with a light blue Korean peninsula on them - a flag representing a unified Korea.

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HU: For Joung Jeehon (ph), a South Korean college student at the game, this moment was a testament to the strength of sports diplomacy.

JOUNG JEEHON: I think that this is the first step of the diplomatic talking with them without a nuclear. So the first step of this thing is the sports.

HU: Like South Korea's Moon administration, he's hopeful this turns into a larger dialogue about peace on the peninsula, a peace that North Korea's growing nuclear and missile programs have threatened.

JEEHON: Or maybe they can talk about the nuclear things, and they can talk with America, too.

HU: That's mere hope for now. The Trump administration has favored pressuring and isolating North Korea. During his visit here to the Games, Vice President Mike Pence made a point to protest North Korea by not standing for the unified Korean team at the opening ceremony, even though the team was dominated by athletes from South Korea - the host country and a longtime American ally. If this irritated the South Korean president, he hasn't shown it. He and his North Korean guests were busy rooting for their hockey team, a team forced together by politics.

HYEJIN IM: Yeah, there's mixed feelings about it, but I think it's great. I mean, you know, sports can bring differences together.

HU: Hyejin Im is mom to Team Korea for Danelle Im. She says her daughter took the diplomatically negotiated new squad members in stride.

IM: And when you understand that there's - the common humanity go beyond the politics. I think that's what my daughter's actually experiencing.

HU: The game ended in a lopsided loss for Team Korea. But for the duration of these Olympics, at least, the team scored a win for keeping the peace. Elise Hu, NPR News, Gangneung, South Korea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.