Update: On Jan. 17, the two countries announced that they would field a joint women’s hockey team and march under a unified Korean flag at the Winter Olympics.
As relations between the Koreas start to thaw, South Korean president Moon Jae-in has made the upcoming Winter Olympics a vital part of that detente. And key to that effort is women’s hockey—specifically the idea of a joint North-South Korean team.
But the South Korean players aren’t particularly happy at the prospect of North Korea crashing their Olympics debut. The women’s team coach, Sarah Murray, told reporters yesterday (Jan. 16) that there might be “damage” to the team because “the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics.”
The proposal for a joint team was made when the two countries met on Jan. 9 at the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer zone that divides the two Koreas, but the plan wasn’t made public until Jan. 12. Further details of the proposal will be hammered out this weekend when North and South Korea meet in Lausanne, Switzerland at the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The Winter Olympics will be held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang from Feb. 9 to 25. North Korea has agreed to send 230 female cheerleaders and a 140-member orchestra to the games. The possibility of the two countries marching together under a joint flag at the opening ceremony for the first time since the 2006 Olympics is also being discussed. Only two North Korean athletes, figure skaters Kim Ju-sik and Ryom Tae-ok, have qualified for the games.
More North Korean athletes could take part in the Olympics if they’re added to the female hockey roster. South Korea’s sports minister said that the government plans to ask the IOC whether it can expand the team’s current roster of 23 to more than 30. He tried to placate the South Korean team by explaining that as hockey is played in short shifts, all players would get a turn on the ice.
Furthermore, South Korea’s prime minister Lee Nak-yeon said at a media briefing today (Jan. 17) that since its women’s hockey team is ranked 22nd in the world, it’s “not in contention for a medal” (link in Korean). North Korea’s team is ranked 25th.
Though the details of a single hockey team have not been finalized, president Moon reiterated today that if the two countries march together or form a joint team, the prospects for peace are better than just North Korea’s participation in the games.
It will be the first appearance by South Korea’s female hockey team at the Winter Olympics, having automatically qualified as the host nation. Murray, the coach, added that she was ”kind of shocked” that the possibility of fielding a joint team with North Korea was announced so close to the start of the games. An unnamed official with South Korea’s ice hockey association told Reuters that the team was “furious” and “utterly speechless” at the proposal.
The idea for fielding a joint team was actually first floated last summer by South Korea’s sports minister. Murray said she didn’t think the matter would be raised again after those talks.
The two teams met last year in April at an international hockey tournament in Gangneung in South Korea, which the host nation won 3-0.