For South Korean Hockey Team, Unity With North Is a Sacrifice

For South Korean Hockey Team, Unity With North Is a Sacrifice

North and South Korea also reached an agreement last Wednesday for their athletes to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony on Feb. 9.

With the official announcement on Saturday that 12 North Korean players would be added to the Olympic women’s team roster, with three of them mandated to dress for each game, some of the South Korean athletes fear losing playing time or being benched for some games.

“It’s hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics,” the women’s coach, Sarah Murray, told the Korean news media last week. “The players said in June not to make them a political statement and that they just want to play the game,” Ms. Murray added. “I agreed with them.”

Within South Korea, criticism of the government’s decision to field an inter-Korean team has undermined the approval ratings of President Moon Jae-in, who has vocally supported the North’s inclusion in hockey.

According to the most recent Gallup poll, his rating has dropped to 67 percent, its lowest mark in 16 weeks. Polls taken in South Korea within the last week have also shown that many respondents disagree with the decision to add North Koreans to the roster.

On social media and in petitions filed with the presidential Blue House, South Koreans have shown sympathy for the South Korean hockey players. “I don’t think the athletes’ lives should be sacrificed for an event,” wrote one Facebook user, Jaeeok Kim. One petition opposing the inter-Korean team, submitted on the Blue House website, drew more than 50,000 signatures.

“Can abstract values like ‘peace’ and ‘unification’ get ahead of individual freedom?” one commenter on the petition wrote. “South Korea is a free liberal country, not a socialist country. I hope the government will not force individual sacrifice.”

Lee Min-ji, a player who lost a spot on the Olympic roster to a naturalized Korean-Canadian player, posted — and then later took down — a long statement on Instagram, lamenting the decision to add North Koreans to the team as “extremely unfortunate.”

“How can one think that the players would take this situation in a good mood,” Ms. Lee wrote, “even when anyone can become such a sacrificed player?”

Most of the players are still teenagers, and several have battled injuries and endured long commutes and punishing training along with the tormenting embarrassment of blowout losses.

With the South Korean team ranked 22nd in the world, many around the team believe the decision to unite with North Korean players is rooted in disrespect. The men’s team was never considered for integration.

Last week, South Korea’s prime minister, Lee Nak-yeon, drew sharp ire when he said that the women’s team was not a medal contender anyway, implying that its athletic unity could be sacrificed for political unity. He later apologized for the comments.

Some analysts said the decision was simply sexist. “There is a degree of gendered notion that women’s sports aren’t as important and that they can be used in this soft cultural approach,” said Benjamin Young, a Ph.D. candidate in modern Korean history at George Washington University. “The South Korean government is not having two inter-Korean hockey teams, male and female. They are kind of making explicit their gender bias known. I can certainly understand why the team players, coaches and public are upset.”

Analysts said young South Koreans in particular objected to the last-minute insertion of North Korean players for political reasons as fundamentally unfair.

“During the campaign for the 19th presidential election, President Moon Jae-in stressed, ‘Opportunity will be fair; the process will be fixed and the result just,’ ” a commenter wrote on a petition submitted to the Blue House. “But the government that took away our athletes’ opportunity; that ignored the preparation process, is this really just?”

Lee Byuntae, a professor of information systems and economics at Kaist College of Business in Seoul, said Mr. Moon was particularly vulnerable to such criticism since he was elected on the back of the impeachment of President Park Guen-hye last spring. She was ousted after widespread protests against politically motivated favoritism.

In the case of the presidential protests, critics initially balked at corruption when they learned that the daughter of a longtime confidante of Ms. Park had illegally enrolled in a prestigious university using her mother’s connections to force the university to accept her despite poor qualifications.

In the case of the ice hockey team, Professor Lee said, the government is favoring North Korean players in order to make a political statement. “The government high officers, without any consultation with the hockey players, decided they will form this united team,” he said.

South Korea’s sports minister, Do Jong-hwan, initially raised the idea of a joint team last June, which bothered players then.

“They didn’t want it to happen,” said Marissa Brandt, a player who was born in South Korea and adopted by a family in Minnesota, in an interview last October. Ms. Brandt, who said she never “felt Korean” growing up, is an assistant captain who proudly wears her Korean name on her jersey.

“Every girl on this team has put in so much time and effort, and it would be tough to see any of us get cut or have to give up a spot to someone else,” Ms. Brandt said. “We are such a tight-knit team, and we want to stick together.”

Some analysts said the opportunity to create a sense of unity and advance a peace process was more important than the team’s disappointment.

“The public hoopla on how we are sacrificing the young Korean women’s Olympic dreams, I think, is another political statement with specific aims to undermine the fact that there is going to be some peace process going on with the Pyeongchang Olympics,” said Chung Yong-chul, a professor of sports psychology in the Graduate School of Education at Sogang University in Seoul. “All the people talking about how unfair it is for them to give up their spot, they didn’t even know what ice hockey was before this issue came up.”

For now, the South Korean teammates are putting in their last practices before the Games begin next month. The slogan on their black warm-up shirts reads: “Make Korea Proud.”

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