Hockey and Reunification

Anything that looks good on paper has unforeseen drawbacks.

On January 20, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed the South and North Korean governments’ decision to have a joint women’s ice hockey team for the upcoming event. The decision was made to promote peace and unity on the Korean peninsula, which has experienced precarious situations regarding North Korean missile tests.

During the Olympic games, the joint team will include 23 South Korean players and 12 North Korean players. This is an exceptional moment in history; it is the first time that the two Koreas have joined hands in the Olympics. However, voices of concern are raised that the South Korean government should address in order to have a successful event in February.

The Atlantic reported that South-Korean president Moon Jae-In supports the joint ice hockey team. He said, “Fielding a joint team, more so than North Korea’s participation alone, would be a much better starting point for the improvement of North and South Korean relations,” thereby suggesting that the joint team will help to resolve the current diplomatic tensions between South and North Korea.

Moreover, according to The Korea Times, the president said, “It may require bigger efforts to create teamwork with the North Koreans. However, it will be a historic moment if the two Koreas put up a good fight as one team. I’m sure this will impress not only Koreans but also the whole world.” In other words, the decision to form a joint team will be a symbolic gesture that will promote world peace by fostering camaraderie and cooperation among the two Koreas.

Nevertheless, is it fair for the government to sacrifice individuals for its own purpose? Some people are expressing dismay regarding the fairness of the decision. The Korea Times reported that Coach Sarah Murray of the South Korean female ice hockey team commented, “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics, then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.” Also, Channel A broadcasted an interview with the South Korean players who expressed frustration and dismay that their efforts may go to waste.

Indeed, the players on the team have worked hard to earn their spot for the past years. Joongang Ilbo, one of the major South Korean newspapers, reported that there is only one female ice hockey team in Korea, so athletes have to practice hard under dire conditions. According to Joongang Ilbo, the Olympic athletes get paid only 1.2 million won (equivalent to 1,130 dollars) for practicing 20 days a month. An anonymous athlete had to work a part-time job at a restaurant in order to make a living. Considering their efforts and harsh conditions under which they practice, they should be compensated with an opportunity to play during the big event; however, it seems that not everybody will be lucky enough this time.

Many people, especially those of the younger generation, sympathize with the players’ situation. As many young Koreans try hard but fail to secure a job, they comprehend the plight of the players who practice hard but yet get eliminated from the roster. A sports commentator said, “I really feel for the female ice hockey players who had to form the joint team.” It seems like many young people respect fair competition, even more so than reunification.

Also, some people are skeptical that the decision will result in the “best case scenario.” Clearly, the Korean government hopes that this decision will encourage North Korea to have high-level summit talks or multilateral dialogue. However, during an interview with The Atlantic, the former senior South Korean diplomat Kim Sung Han said that North Korea may try to pressure South Korea to cancel the joint military exercise with the United States in exchange for a peaceful Olympic season.

As much as every Korean wishes to have a successful Olympic game in Pyeongchang, people also want to see fairness and thoughtful decision. It is absolutely needed that the Korean government addresses the issues that have been raised and respect the athletes as well as the criticism from the public.

– Willliam Cho (’21)

Featured Image: The Hangyoreh

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