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Diplomacy on (Olympic) Ice

Words: Jim Baird

“Extremely unfortunate,” read the soon-to-be-deleted Instagram post. “How can one think that the players would take this situation in a good mood?”

This was not how her Olympic story was supposed to end. For Lee Min-ji, a forward with South Korea’s women’s national hockey team, her dream of playing in the Winter Olympics was over. Not due to injury, doping, or a lack of skill that had proven an Olympic-dream-graveyard for so many of her global contemporaries. Instead, Min-ji had been caught in a fraught geopolitical dance. One of rockets, rhetoric — and now, strangely — ice hockey.

In a meeting in the village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone, government officials from North and South Korea sat down for talks for the first time in two years. An agreement was reached. Future military talks would continue. A military communications hotline would reopen. The terms were important steps in a relationship marked by distrust and enmity. But the most visible take-away from the negotiations would not involve the military at all. It will be seen lacing up skates, taping up hockey sticks, and hitting the ice in PyeongChang.

For the first time in the Olympics, North Korea and South Korea will field a unified, competitive team. North Korea will join forces with the South Korean women’s ice hockey squad to play under the banner of a unified Korea. That spirit will extend beyond the rink. The North and South will march together in the opening ceremony. A 200-plus person cheering squad, a 140 member orchestra, and even a team to show-off taekwando moves will attend the games on behalf of North Korea. North Korean government officials will be in attendance too, cheering on their country’s competitors in alpine and cross-country skiing, as well as speed and figure skating.

In a climate in the Asia-Pacific that has been defined by false alarms, short fuses, and red buttons, any signs of a diplomatic pulse — even momentary signs — are welcome. The Olympic news was greeted in the U.S. with a mix of clear-eyed caution, and embers of optimism that it may lead to future progress. Of it, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “We hope that this experience gives North Korea and its athletes a small taste of freedom and that rubs off and is something that spreads and impacts in these negotiations and in these conversations.”

But in South Korea the news of a unified hockey team landed with a thud. Because of Olympic roster size limits, some South Korean players, like Lee Min-ji, were cut to make room for the addition of North Korean players. Unity ended their Olympic dreams.

President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating fell to a four-month low in the immediate aftermath of the unified team announcement. There were accusations of sexism (the men’s hockey squad was reportedly never considered a candidate to merge with their Northern counterparts). More players spoke up. One of the leaders of the women’s hockey team, goalie Shin So-jung, told the Chosun Ilbo that players are “frustrated and demoralized.” The team was not consulted before the move. International teams have trained for years for this Olympic moment. Now, with less than a month to prepare, a unified team Korea team must attempt to gel.

For two countries divided by the DMZ, it should be no surprise that there will be real challenges uniting on the rink. But there is opportunity too. The DPRK squad ranks 25th in the world, South Korea 22nd. To be sure, this team is not expected to bring home medals. On its best day, a unified team Korea does not stand with the perennial titans in women’s hockey — USA, Canada, Russia, Finland, or Sweden. But victory here is more than goals scored and games won.

For the first time at the Olympics, a united Korea team awakens on the world stage. In a moment when the Peninsula looks for hope — it will be found resting on the shoulders and gliding on the skates of the women of Korea. If success is achieved, it will be because the athletes — thrust into an experiment with global implications — have more talent and ability together than they do apart. And maybe, just for an instant, there will be glimpses of a future beyond the rink. Where Korea stands tall together, the troubled frictions of history — and the moment — in their shadows.

Jim Baird

Editorial Board Member

Jim Baird reports on the intersection of sports, culture, and foreign policy. He's previously served as a correspondent for Sporting News, SB Nation's Land-Grant Holy Land, and as communications director for the Stimson Center, a leading global affairs think tank.


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