De-frosting North-South Relations: How Hockey can Smooth the Path to Reunification

North and South Korea face-off on the ice

By Tom Norris, Contributing Writer

April 20, 2017 - Approaching the sparkling Gangneung Hockey Center, I felt a sense of anticipation that was somewhat out of the ordinary. As reporters and TV crews buzzed around conducting interviews, excitement grew as organizers hurriedly distributed match tickets and sweatshirts to fans. I was witnessing the prelude to one of sport’s most unusual encounters - North Korea versus South Korea.
Introducing myself to an organizer, I asked which team he would be supporting more passionately and what impact he hoped the match would have. Cheerfully, he explained that he would be supporting both North and South Korea equally and that hopefully his group’s efforts would lead to better North-South relations and eventually reunification.

After passing through airport-like security, I entered the stadium and found a seat alongside the unification supporters. I was handed a small Korean peninsula flag and two sheets - one with a list of names of all the North Korean players, and another with songs to sing throughout the match. With over 500 fans singing “We Are One” and “Nice to Meet You”, the North Korean players were met with a warm and friendly atmosphere as they first stepped onto the ice.

Fans were given flags and sweatshirts emblazoned with the Korean peninsula (photo courtesy of Tongil News)

Shortly after the match began I found that, although the organizer had told me the unification supporters would be cheering for the teams equally, it was the North Korean players who received the most vociferous support. Even when one of the North Korean players was penalized for unsporting conduct and sent to the penalty box, South Korean fans cheered the name of the player for a full 2 minutes. And, when a North Korean player suffered an injury later on, the fans chanted the player’s name, willing her to find the strength to continue.

Despite this incredible support throughout the match, North Korea was unable to find a goal against the stronger South Korean side, with the match ending 3-0. Clearly dejected after the final whistle, the North Koreans lined up opposite their opponents for the post-match handshaking. It would be at this point that most fans at sporting events would make their way to the exits, eager to avoid congestion. Those in attendance at the Gangneung Hockey Center, however, remained rooted to the spot. To this crowd, the match’s concluding ceremonies were more important than any goal-scoring or rush to get home.

The palpable tension of the stadium though, in an instant, was relieved and replaced with jubilation as the players high-fived. The crowd raised their unified Korean peninsula flags and continued to sing “We Are One”, sensing that their encouragements were having an effect. Next, to mark the United Nation’s International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation took to the ice for a commemorative photo. As the players mixed and formed two rows for the picture, fans cheered wildly, with noise reaching an absolute crescendo. Listening to the fans, it was clear to me this match was not so much South Korea “versus” North Korea, but rather South Korea “with” North Korea.

Fans erupt in applause as the players pose together for a commemorative photo

South Koreans had come from near and far to attend this match, donning Korean peninsula sweatshirts, and chanting unification-themed songs in the hope that their support would in some way benefit inter-Korean relations. But leaving the stadium, I wondered whether the ice can provide any traction for future cooperation or whether reconciliation efforts would continue to slip. For a reminder of the formidable obstacles in the way of reunification, I did not have to travel far from the Gangneung Hockey Center.

A small coastal city, Gangneung is not best known as the future site of Olympic hockey but rather as the site of an infamous 1996 North Korean incursion. In September 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground off the shore of Gangneung while attempting to retrieve a team of spies. Following an order to abandon the submarine, the North Korean soldiers made an attempt to return to the DMZ by land, leading to a 49-day manhunt in which 40 people were killed.

The submarine today is the centerpiece of Gangneung’s Unification Park, a site dedicated to understanding the incursion and “fostering a desire for the unification of the North and South”. Walking around the park and through the captured North Korean submarine, however, I was not filled with the same sense of optimism I had felt during the previous night’s hockey match. Gazing at the advanced weaponry, it dawned on me that reunification efforts paled in comparison to the efforts made to destroy one another.

The captured North Korean submarine, centerpiece of Gangneung Unification Park

The current security situation is no less severe than it was a decade ago. In fact, North Korea had fired a ballistic missile into the East Sea just one day before the all-Korea hockey match. Meanwhile, the South Korean government, unlike with earlier inter-Korean sporting occasions, made no efforts to promote the hockey match as politically significant.

These days, with a new South Korean president yet to be elected, the path forward for North Korean relations remains unclear. However, with the potential election of a more liberal successor to ousted president Park Geun-hye, it is likely that inter-Korean sports cooperation could once again play an important role.

Although it is unknown whether North Korea will even participate in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games, one cannot help but feel that the incredible support of the South Korean people at Gangneung Hockey Center will influence the decision. Following the overwhelmingly positive public reaction to this memorable match, it seems certain that both governments will take note when weighing up the potential of future sporting cooperation. If a picture says a thousand words then volumes can be written of the emotional image captured as the two teams posed for the final commemorative photo - a symbolic image of Korean hope for a unified future.