GANGNEUNG: South Korea scored a victory against arch rival the North in a rare ice hockey match Thursday, in a game that resonated beyond the sportsfield.
Playing in the South just an hour’s drive from the heavily fortified demilitarised zone that divides them, the two Koreas faced off in the women’s world ice hockey championships division II group A seen as a test event for next year’s Winter Olympics.
In a much-hyped clash in front of thousands of eager spectators, the South’s team dominated the game, scoring two early power-play goals and clinching a 3-0 win.
“It is meaningful to play against the North Korean team on Korean soil,” said 16-year-old South Korean forward Lee Eun-Ji after the game.
The North Korean team kept their heads down as the South’s anthem was played after the game, and all players then posed awkwardly for a souvenir photo.
“Most of the (North Korean) players looked like they cried so it was difficult for us to approach them after the game,” said South Korean blueliner Park Ye-Eun.
The North Korean players did not comment to the media after the game.
A 500-strong squad of white-uniformed cheerleaders, from students to the elderly, performed an exuberant display with pro-unification flags to mark the first North-South face-off on the peninsula in 11 years.
“It’s a reflection of the people’s high hopes and expectations,” said Lee Sun-Kyung, leader of the group that organised the cheerleading team.
The crowd chanted “Go Korea! We are one!” at climactic moments in the game.
The two Koreas remain technically in conflict after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and relations between them have plunged in recent months.
No political questions
Security was tight at the venue in the eastern city of Gangneung, with rows of police buses parked outside the rink and officers patrolling the area.
Around 6,000 tickets sold online days before the game and fans lined up hours for a further 1,000 tickets distributed at the venue.
“We came two hours before the game for our tickets because we didn’t want to miss this opportunity,” said Cho Eun-Mi, who watched the match with her husband and young daughter.
Another spectator Jang Hyun-Woong said: “I’ve never been to a hockey game in my life but today’s was special.”
The North’s 30-member delegation — including players, coaches and some sports officials — have so far been reticent about speaking to South Korean media.
But pictures of the North Korean players training or strolling on the beach have spread across the internet and television in the South nevertheless, with media covering the team since they arrived on Saturday.
The sensitivity of the match was evident in the press centre in Gangneung, with instructions taped on the tables warning journalists against asking “political questions” of the players.
The game takes place amid a spike in tensions on the Korean peninsula following a ballistic missile launch by the North Wednesday and expectations of a sixth nuclear test.
The last time Pyongyang participated in an international sports event held in South Korea was the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, during which the North dispatched three of its top officials for talks with Seoul.
South Korea’s women’s football team are also on a rare trip to Pyongyang, where they are scheduled to play North Korea in an Asian Cup qualifying tournament on Friday.