After the first year of the Korean War, most of the world lost hope for peace in the Korean Peninsula, let alone some form of unification.
During the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, the Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team provided a glimpse of peace that hadn’t been seen in over half a century. To fully comprehend the progress signaled by this momentous occasion, one must fully recognize the turbulent history of the Korean Peninsula, as well as the intense stakes of such an endeavor.
Post-World War II Korea
Before and during World War II (WWII), Japan ruled the Korean Peninsula.
Upon Japan’s loss in WWII, the Soviet Union and the United States gained stewardship of the peninsula in 1945 and subsequently split it along the 38th parallel to ease management. The Soviets maintained the northern side of the 38th parallel, while the US supported the southern side. Because of the long Japanese rule, the Korean Peninsula had no established governmental structure.
The U.S. and the Soviets took differing approaches to lead their respective Korean regions. The Soviets pushed thousands of refugees to the South and quickly supported Marxist sympathizer Kim Il Sung’s rise to power.
After multiple failed talks regarding the unification and great disputes in ruling styles, the U.S. requested that the United Nations take over supervising and supporting the South, which the U.N. accepted in 1947. This disagreement between the US and Soviets catalyzed the Cold War.
The U.N. pushed for the South to build complete autonomy and be recognized as an independent state. Some Northern sympathizers in the South disagreed and wanted to be unified with the North, leading to mass partisan warfare. Eventually, Syngman Rhee’s Republic of Korea won out, but not without massive amounts of bloodshed. This led to an uneasy relationship with the U.S., which disagreed with the methods by which Rhee came to power.
In 1948, both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) had been established. Despite a very clear boundary of the 38th parallel, both sides wished to expand to govern the entire peninsula, leading to many skirmishes near the border and the deaths of over 10,000 Koreans.
Soon, after building an army and police force of over 100,000 with the help of its neighbors and allies, Kim received approval from Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, to invade South Korea.
The Korean War
On June 25, 1950, the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. The U.S. viewed this invasion as a fulfillment of the “domino effect,” or the prediction that a country falling to communism will engender another to do the same.
It also served as an obvious failure in the “containment” strategy the U.S. imposed upon the Soviets’ expansion, thus igniting further tensions and urges to utilize military intervention to beat back the Soviets. The U.S. pushed to do just that.
In observing how underprepared the South Korean army was compared to their neighbors to the North, the U.S. requested U.N. permission to intervene on behalf of the Republic of Korea (ROK).
Upon approval, the U.S. began to engage the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in battle, though they, too, were woefully unprepared. Due to water, weapon, and soldier shortages, the North Koreans pushed their way deep into the Southern region of the peninsula.
Soon, with proper equipment and reinforcements, South Korea and the U.S. pressed the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel and further into retreat. The ROK halted and soon were forced back to the 38th parallel by the DPRK and Chinese support.
Both sides quickly realized that with the military powers at play, neither side would ever capture the other without significant losses and massive threats to their safety. Thus, peace talks began in 1951, mainly between the United Nations Command and the Chinese.
Ultimately, these parties agreed to a cease-fire along the 38th parallel, and an armistice was settled in 1953. Boundaries for each region were redrawn to create a demilitarized zone close to the 38th parallel.
This new zone demarcated North Korea from South Korea, sectoring off 1.2 miles from each side. This encompassed the town of P’anmunjŏm, also known as “truce village,” where peace talks occurred.
Post-Korean War Korea
The Korean War left more than 5 million people dead, with over half consisting of Korean people. Approximately 1.6 million killed were Korean civilians, amounting to around 10% of Korea’s prewar population.
After the war, North and South Korea looked to rebuild. The reconstruction of the two countries took very different trajectories.
North Korea developed into an isolated communist state with the Kim family at its helm, drawing influence from China and the Soviets.
South Korea rebounded slowly at first, developing infrastructure that built them into one of the major powerhouses in Asia.
With the Cold War developing in the beginning years of the peninsula’s independence, some Koreans and critics believe that the dispute in Korea allowed for the U.S. and Soviets to hash out political disagreements by proxy. Some blame those countries for the lack of unification in modern times.
In several instances, the Koreas took steps towards talks regarding reconciliation, but those efforts always fell short of the goal. The leaders of the two states met in June 2000 to discuss improving relations between the two countries, but nothing came of the talks.
Additionally, the development of nuclear weapons further strained relationships between the countries. Nonetheless, some Koreans still hope for unification.
Attempts at unification through sport
Divided countries have collaborated and unified several times on the national stage in the history of competitive sport. Several of those instances occurred at the Olympic Games: East and West Germany from 1952 to 1964, and Syria and Egypt at the 1960 and 1964 Summer Olympics.
In 1991, North and South Korea fielded unified teams for the World Table Tennis Championships as well as the FIFA World Youth Championships. The women’s table tennis team won gold. The Koreas set another example of unification by parading together for the 2000, 2004 and 2006 Olympics.
Upon hosting the 2018 Winter Olympics, Koreans became optimistic that their sides might once again unify in the name of sport. Leading up to the Olympics, North and South Korea had expressed camaraderie through sport, such as the North allowing South Korea to participate in a women’s soccer tournament and North Korea participating in an ice hockey tournament in South Korea.
In summer 2017, just over half a year before the Pyeongchang Olympics were set to begin, South Korean President Moon Jae-in advocated for a joint Olympic team. North Korean International Olympic Committee member Chang Un shut down the idea, reasoning that not enough time existed to hammer out an arrangement, adding that the Olympics “should not be used for a political aim.”
Supporters still doubted whether North Korean athletes would even be permitted to compete, with organizers encouraging participation as well as the large-scale cheering groups the country often sends to international competitions.
One month before the slated start of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, a possibility emerged and solidified: the women’s ice hockey team.
Women’s ice hockey in Korea
The history of women’s ice hockey in the Korean Peninsula is quite short compared to powerhouses like Canada and Finland.
A year after women’s ice hockey debuted in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, both North and South Korea founded women’s national ice hockey teams. North Korea’s team found immediate success and rose in the world rankings in the early 2000s, eventually topping out at 12th.
South Korea, on the other hand, did not experience much success due to a lack of appeal to citizens. In the early to mid-2010s, South Korea began to recruit U.S. and Canadian female ice hockey players with Korean lineage to the national team.
Several notable players, including Randi Griffin, Grace Lee (birth name Lee Jin-Gyu), Caroline Park and Marissa Brandt (birth name Park Yoon Jung), made the team via this method. Some of these players were not currently engaged in the sport nor had played further than Division II college hockey. Nonetheless, they improved the outlook of the team.
In 2014, South Korea hired Canadian-American Sarah Murray as head coach. Previously, Murray had little to no coaching experience. However, hockey runs deep in Murray’s blood: Murray’s father, Andy Murray, led Canada to three world championships in hockey, and her brothers played professionally in the NHL.
After bolstering the national team roster and finding a good coach, South Korea cultivated success similar to that of North Korea. Entering Pyeongchang 2018 with an automatic bid due to hosting privileges, the South Korean team had little to lose and much to gain with the first appearance for any Korean hockey team in Olympic history.
The team had recently moved up the ranks to 22nd worldwide and competed in the IB Division, a slot out of the top tier of women’s ice hockey. The South Korean women had recently won the world championship for their division, beating North Korea in the process, as the momentum continued to build leading up to the Olympics.
However, in competing against the likes of the U.S., Canada and Finland, the sports ministers had little hope in the South Korean team’s success. With so little to lose, North and South Korean officials met and decided upon an experiment: a unified team.
A unified Korean women’s ice hockey team
Rumors had spread within the South Korean women’s team that a unified team might be a possibility. In early January, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to send a delegation to the Olympics.
Two weeks later, as the North Korean representative to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Chang Un, returned to the North Korea capital of Pyongyang, rumors intensified, especially after South Korea had offered to join their ice hockey team with the North Koreans. Finally, a month before the Olympics were to commence, officials from North and South Korea announced a unified women’s ice hockey team.
The IOC had successfully pushed for this arrangement due to the tensions in the region and financially supported the decision. Because of the unique circumstances, the IOC set specific rules for the unified team, named Korea and abbreviated COR, including that it would be allowed an extended roster of 35 hockey players. Because the South Korean team already filled a normal roster of 23 players, 12 North Korean players were added.
However, the Korean team would only be able to dress 23 players for each match. Additionally, to ensure that players from both teams would have time on the ice, three North Korean players per game had to get playing time. This also meant that at least three members of the original South Korean squad were not permitted to dress out for each game.
As expected, some members of the South Korean team, which had worked so hard in the previous years to move up the ranks, were not thrilled with the idea. Randi Griffin stated that she felt it was “an invasion of our autonomy.” Starting goalie Shin So-Jung agreed that the team felt “devastated.”
The team had overcome a number of barriers in the previous years to reach the status which it now relished. Made up of both naturalized and native South Koreans, the players had to figure out how to communicate across languages, cultures, and norms. Now, the South Korean players felt that they had to work through that process all over again—in just over a month.
Integrating the Korean teams
About a week after the announcement, the unified Korean women’s hockey team finally met. Amid a media frenzy and flower exchange, both sides smiled and vaguely answered questions.
North Korean women’s ice hockey coach Park Chul-ho stated he believed in the ability to achieve success by “uniting our strengths and hearts.” The teams then waved goodbye and boarded separate buses. They remained segregated for the entirety of their team’s unity, creating a tough environment to foster community.
Coach Sarah Murray and the South Korean players recognized the difficulty ahead of them. Because Coach Murray did not speak Korean, the South Korean team functioned mainly from the translated English perspective, whereas the North Korean players relied upon the true Korean translation. The teams mitigated this factor by creating a translation packet to study each other’s linguistic tendencies. Both sides put forth a significant effort to make communicating between them easier.
Additionally, the players had to introduce the playing style and set plays to the new additions to the team. Coach Murray stated that each player must earn their position on the ice, and she would give everyone a fair chance. That meant that every player needed to know every play. Luckily, the North Korean players caught on quickly.
Lastly, the team would need to build chemistry. Fortunately, this was the easiest task to complete. Initially, the large presence of North Korean handlers prevented much chemistry-building. Through training, team meals and dancing to K-pop, the team bonded enough for it to emanate onto the ice. Though distrust still existed, the chemistry shone through and grew over the course of the Games.
The Olympic Games
The Unified Korean women’s ice hockey team made their first appearance in a friendly against Sweden, just a month after the announcement of a unified team. The Korean team lost 3-1.
On February 10, the Korean team played their first match of the Olympic games in a preliminary round against Switzerland. Prior to the match’s commencement, the game had already achieved history: South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong entered and sat together for the entirety of the game.
This meeting marked the first time a member of the North Korean ruling family crossed the demilitarized zone into South Korea since the armistice of 1953.
Outside of the stadium, protesters and counter-protesters lined the streets. Some conservative South Koreans felt as though the government acted soft on North Korea, especially given the recent weapons testings, as well as undermining the success of the South Korean women’s ice hockey team. Others felt hopeful in the perceived steps towards unification, waving flags with a print of the entire Korean Peninsula, similar to the logos worn by the unified Korean team.
Despite all of the ruckus, including a large group of over 230 North Korean cheerleaders, the Korean team lost to the Swiss 8-0.
Unfortunately for the unified Korean team, this trend continued.
In a rematch of their friendly, Sweden stomped the Korean team 8-0. Though clearly outmatched, the team and their cheerleaders remained unfazed, with optimistic and persistent chants echoing through the stadium.
In the next match against bitter rival Japan, Randi Griffin scored the first goal for the unified Korean team and the first goal by any Korean hockey team in the history of the Olympic Winter Games. Still, the team went on to lose 4-1, finishing out the preliminary round 0-3.
In the first game of the classification round, the unified Korean team demonstrated their progress against the Swiss in a rematch of their first official Olympic game, this time losing just 2-0. Similar to previous games, the dignitaries and cheerleaders stole the spotlight, yet the improvement of the new team became exceptionally clear.
For the final match of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, the unified Korean team scored their second goal in history against the Swedes, finishing the tournament with a record of 0-6 and yet still exceeding expectations.
Coach Sarah Murray reflected, “For the two teams to be able to combine and have such good chemistry in such a short amount of time with all the media and governments, it’s pretty remarkable that our players were able to make it work.”
At the end of the match, the players formed a circle in the center of the rink and slammed sticks into the ice to the crowd’s chants of, “We are one!” Then, the theme song of Seoul’s 1988 Olympics played: “Hand in Hand.”
With such a ceremonious conclusion to the unified women’s ice hockey team, some South Koreans hoped the harmony between the hockey players would carry over into the political realm.
To some degree, it did.
Months later, the leaders of both countries met for a summit in South Korea. This marked the first time the leader of North Korea entered into their southern counterpart since the Korean War. At this meeting, the leaders embraced and declared, “There will be no more war on the Korean Peninsula and thus a new era of peace has begun.”
Some Koreans remain skeptical that the changes will amount to any real unification. Regardless, the steps made since the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics illuminate the significance and impact of the unified Korean Olympic women’s ice hockey team.
While members of the team remember the integration as difficult, some look back on it fondly. Caroline Park called it “a huge stepping stone in opening people’s eyes in Korea to ice hockey.”
Others said it opened their eyes to the lives of their North Korean counterparts and did the same for the other side. Han Soojin agreed, adding, “Regardless of politics or whatnot, we met the North Korean athletes, we played sports together and ate together. That’s why I’ll be sorry to say goodbye.”
Today, the puck from Griffin’s goal is displayed at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Canada. Though the puck commemorates the first goal of a unified team, it symbolizes much more: the possibility of peace in the Korean Peninsula.