Korea’s unified women’s ice hockey team were beaten 3-1 in a creditable performance against former Olympic medallists Sweden on their debut in a pre-Olympics warm-up match in Incheon.
Jong Ah Park, a 21-year-old who was born in the south and has played in Canada, scored the Korean goal towards the end of the first period, shortly after Sweden – silver medallists in Turin in 2006 – had established a two-goal lead.
It marked the first time the team has played together since being brought together following North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s unexpected announcement that a delegation of athletes, cheerleaders and performers would attend the Games in Pyeongchang, which start on Friday.
The team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, said she was impressed with the performance of the North Korean players, who met their counterparts from the south for the first time last week.
Murray said: “We’ve been able to practice as a team for just over a week. The North Korean players have learned quickly, they have been great to work with and they work really hard.
“We played Sweden last summer and it was a very one-sided game, and our team has improved greatly since July.
“There are a lot of challenges with adding players so close to the Olympics that haven’t been with us these last four years. But this whole situation is out of our control so we are trying to make the best of it.”
Murray indicated that remaining issues include language differences which make communication difficult between players of both sides, and the fact that the North Koreans are residing in a separate area in the Olympic Village.
Four North Korean players were on Murray’s start-list, and they were absorbed into the line-up with unexpected ease as the Korean team avoided an expected heavy defeat against a team rated genuine medal contenders in Pyeongchang.
In fact, despite long spells of Swedish possession, the result could have been even better for Korea, as they pressed forward in a rousing third period, Yoon Jung Park seeing a late shot from distance deflected wide.
There was an air of orchestration about the event at the compact Seonhak ice rink, with fans singing the Arirang, a traditional folk song, in lieu of the national anthem, and waving the blue and white flag of the peninsula,
The flag first appeared for the unified team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships, and has made sporadic appearances since, but not during recent increased hostilities in the region.
Outside the venue, lines of police separated rival groups of protesters, with a vociferous number waving South Korean and US flags to protest the sporting unification.
One protester, 68-year-old Jae Kun Yu, told Press Association Sport: “The North Korean nation is under a dictatorship. This is not peace, it is a pseudo-peace. We want authentic peace.
“Kim Jong-un is using this kind of sports festival as a way of making him stronger, and that is very dangerous and disrespectful to all those who have fought for authentic peace for so long.”
Besides the ice hockey squad, North Korea is sending 10 additional athletes to the Winter Olympics – three alpine skiers, three cross-country skiers, two speed-skaters and two figure skaters.
The athletes were flown into Gangneung, near Pyeongchang, on Friday and driven straight to the athletes’ village. They will enter Friday’s opening ceremony alongside their counterparts from the south.