In small interactions before Olympics, Korean unity emerges
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — A lot can be contained in a single selfie. The possibilities for peace between two entire nations, even.
A selfie taken by smiling North and South Korean skaters and posted on Instagram illustrates yet another moment of reconciliation between the divided nations, whose decades-long animosities could easily erupt again after the Pyeongchang Olympics.
The South Korean pair of Kam Alex Kang Chan and Kim Kyu-eun shared the same ice with North Korea’s Kim Ju Sik and Ryom Tae Ok for the first time. Before training earlier this week, Kam and Kim used the same locker room and put on skates early so they had spare time together.
Then Kam, 22, proposed taking a selfie together. He called the 25-year-old Kim “hyeong,” a Korean term used to refer to an elder brother or friend.
“I said something like ‘Hey, Ju Sik hyeong, let’s take a photo together!’” Kam said after training Tuesday. “I posted that photo for fun ... and to mark the Olympics.”
The photo recalls a famous 2016 selfie taken by two North and South Korean gymnasts at the Rio Olympics — something that IOC President Thomas Bach described as a “great gesture.”
Similar amicable interactions are visible among the North and South Korean female hockey players, who have formed the rivals’ first joint Olympic team.
The team of 12 North Koreans and 23 South Koreans was composed last month as the Koreas agreed upon a package of reconciliation steps following a year of heightened nuclear tensions that triggered fears of war on the Korean Peninsula.
Many experts have raised worries about teamwork, and a survey showed a majority of South Korean opposed the joint team. Why? They thought it would deprive South Korean athletes of playing time.
At the height of their Cold War rivalry, sports were often an alternate battlefield between the Koreas. North Korean medalists often ignored South Korean competitors who extended their hands for handshakes at podiums. North Korea also boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Olympics, both held in Seoul.
Since the Cold War, though, the countries have sometimes used sports as a way to thaw relations.
That was certainly at play Monday when four North and South Korean hockey players who didn’t take part in the session took a selfie and laughed together. Also grabbing attention: earlier photos of birthday parties thrown for two North Korean players, and a dictionary aimed at overcoming a linguistic divide.
“Hockey really does bring people together,” said the team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray. “On our team, they are just players. You know ... there is no North Korean or South Korean. They are all wearing the same jersey. We are all on the same team.”
On Thursday, in another unusual spectacle, North Korea’s national anthem was played and its flag was hoisted alongside an Olympic flag during a boisterous welcoming ceremony for athletes from the North. South Korea has strict security laws that normally ban the playing of the North’s anthem and the raising of its flag .
A group of South Korean B-boys, or break dancers, twisted their bodies and flipped relentlessly after walking into the center of a group of North Korean athletes. A North Korean band played the Korean folk tune “Arirang.” North Korean athletes hummed to themselves before starting to dance. South Korean dancers joined them, triggering a barrage of camera flashes.
“I feel so good,” North Korean figure skating coach Kim Hyon Son said after the ceremony. “I want to see both North and South Korean people being pleased.”
The feel-good sparks will peak during the opening ceremony on Friday, when athletes of the Koreas will march together under a single “unification flag” to the tune of “Arirang” instead of their respective anthems. It will be the first such joint march since 2007.
It’s unclear what other Olympic moments involving the two countries could make news, particularly because the hockey team isn’t expected to win a medal.
“Quite strangely, no medal, no issue,” said Jung Moon-hyun, a sports science professor at Chungnam National University in South Korea. “Whether North Korea does some action that pours cold water on the Olympic (reconciliation mood) is something to think about.”
But Jung said even one win by the team will be “very meaningful” news. On Feb. 14, the Korean team faces Japan, which colonized Korea for more than three decades before it split into North and South shortly after World War II.
When the Games end, North and South Korean players will be separated, probably for good. Their governments ban ordinary citizens from exchanging phone calls, letters and emails, so they won’t communicate unless they encounter each other in international competitions.
For now, though, things like congenial selfies will have to be enough. The South Korean media certainly liked the latest one showing Kam and Kim flashing smiles and making peace signs. It was reproduced all over the country.
The Seoul-based Kookmin Ilbo newspaper even gave it a memorable moniker, a sign of hope after generations of Korean division: “The icon of new peace.”
Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at @hyungjin1972