This Thursday at 9 pm the Koreas will face off in an ice hockey match between the two countries’ women’s ice hockey teams as part of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
The game will be taking place in Gangneung, on South Korea’s east coast – approximately 66 miles from the demilitarized zone which separates North and South. And whether or not it’s a big deal, it seems, really depends on who you ask.
The match will be the first between the two ice hockey teams on the peninsula since its division, and, as with everything related to inter-Korean exchange, the lead up to the trip has been mired in bureaucratic uncertainty. For example, as of early February, the two Koreas had still not discussed the match, which apart from being an exciting inter-Korean face-off, will also serve as part of the qualifiers for next year’s Winter Olympics.
In mid-March, the North Koreans submitted their entry list for the matches to the PyeongChang Organizing Committee. But in a typically confusing development at the time, the South Korean Ministry of Unification (MOU) said it had not received any details from their DPRK counterparts. In fact, it would take a subsequent 11 days for them to officially hear from their colleagues in the North.
Despite the initial hurdles, the team landed on Saturday – just three days after Seoul announced they would be allowed to visit.
The match comes, as these things often do, at an interesting time for inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s relations with the rest of the world. In just a few weeks South Korea will elect a new president, with all polls currently pointing to Moon Jae-in – a liberal broadly in favor of renewed engagement with the DPRK – becoming the likely successor to the disgraced Park Geun-hye.
North of the border, too, there are rumblings of a different kind. Since Kim Jong Un’s pledge in his New Years’ Speech that, this year, “Pyongyang will reach the final preparation stages for test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)”, North Korea has conducted a slew of tests related to its nuclear program, including at least two successful sets of missile launches and one of a new rocket engine.
The match will be the first between the two ice hockey teams on the peninsula since its division
Further abroad, the February murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur – a crime widely blamed on North Korea and one allegedly carried out with the VX nerve agent – has meant that the country’s international standing is even worse than usual.
So could Thursday’s match mend ties between the North and its neighbors? Some South Koreans certainly think so.
As the DPRK women’s team arrived in the South and played their first match on Sunday against Australia, hundreds of South Koreans turned out to support them, waving white and blue flags promoting Korean unification. The supporters were from an organization called the June 15 South Korean Committee, a pro-Unification group which has, in the past, garnered controversy for its attempts to meet with North Koreans abroad without permission from the government: illegal under South Korean law.
“We have been using this flag, the Korea Peninsula Flag, for a long time since early 2000’s,” Lee Sun-hyung, co-chairperson of the group, tells NK News, when asked why they chose to wave the Unification flag known as the Hanbandogi in Korean. “This symbolizes the hope for the reconciliations of the two Koreas that have been separated for a long time.”
“They lost yesterday, but I hope they win in the future matches,” Lee continues. “I hope this sports event ends well, so that it becomes the beginning of more sports exchanges between the two to come.”
“Even in history, sports events have often served as the catalyst improving the relations between the two nations. I have high expectations for this event.”
If the women’s team do emerge victorious in at least one match, it would be a victory for a country for which – although the game has been played in the DPRK for a while – success has been elusive.
Ice hockey has been played in North Korea since it was introduced by the Soviets in the early 1950s, says Michael Spavor, director of the Paektu Cultural Exchange project. And, from what he’s heard, it’s been around much longer in the North than in the South, significantly growing in popularity in recent years – though not quite reaching the same status as football or, most famously due to its connections with the infamous visits of Dennis Rodman, basketball.
“There is a national team and a dozen or so local regional teams throughout the country,” says Spavor. “Their games and tournaments are broadcast on TV and lately even online on their local intranet.”
Equipment and facilities, however, are in short supply, for the country only has three to four ice-rinks and most equipment needs to be imported, according to Spavor.
“It is not the most accessible and affordable sport,” he says. “Unfortunately, since a new round of international sanctions prohibiting the import of sports equipment have been introduced I can’t imagine this will make popularizing the sport any easier.”
Ice hockey has been played in North Korea since it was introduced by the Soviets in the early 1950s
Spavor knows a thing or two about North Korean ice hockey. In March last year, amid widespread global condemnation of the North Korea’s claim to have tested a hydrogen bomb, he took a group of Canadian and American players into the country for a friendly series of games with the North Korean national men’s team.
He thinks the game played a big role introducing many North Koreans to the sport, with people coming from across the city “to watch hockey for the first time” once news of his international friendship match spread. The popularity of the event, he says, led to plans for a second Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition (PIFIHE) for 2018 – and another tour group even borrowing his idea.
Unsurprisingly, Spavor will be attending Thursday’s match in South Korea, and he’s “super excited” to be cheering on both teams in Gangneng. He’s happy to lay his cards on the table, and is, unapologetically, a strong believer in the efficacy of these kinds of cultural and sports exchange projects.
“This is a great example of how sport between these two countries, technically still at war, can come together and try to forget about politics, and have fun while breaking down negative pre-existing stereotypes and making new friends,” he says. “We are really happy that both countries have agreed to hold these games and hope that, based on this event’s success, it will become a positive example for more exchanges leading to a reduction in tensions and paving a path towards normalization and peace on the Korean Peninsula.”
Footage of Paektu Cultural Exchange’s International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition (PIFIHE) last year
ON THIN ICE?
With many lauding the benefits of these exchange programs and seeing the likely next South Korean President as sympathetic to a pro-engagement policy, it’s easy to see why trying a little tenderness might be appealing. Surely, after eight years of hardline policies from two conservative presidents in South Korea – which seem to have done little to curb North Korea’s nuclear program or extreme rhetoric, it’s now time for South Korea to reach across the DMZ?
But while South Korea may imminently see a more progressive government take power, there are real obstacles in play and a return to the idealistic Sunshine-era policies of the past seems unlikely. For one thing, the difficulties involved in reopening the Kaesong Industrial Complex make actual economic engagement difficult.
Moon Jae-in has pledged to reopen the controversial facility, but any transfer of funds to the North by South Korean businesses would require full transparency from the DPRK about where the money might be going: any Korean Won going to the country’s nuclear program would violate United Nations Security Council sanctions.
This shift in South Korean politics, provoked by eight years of right-wing rule and last year’s “Choi-gate” scandal, has coincided with a very different political shift in South Korea’s oldest ally. President Donald Trump, to put it mildly, is not particularly interested in the nuances of a Sunshine-style policy, it seems.
Trump, simply, wants results: for North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile tests. And he’s said that he’s willing to make this happen unilaterally if China doesn’t play ball. What that means for Seoul is unclear, but it may certainly put a dampener on any major plans for engagement
What this means is that, for at least the first year or so, the new administration in Seoul may be forced to pursue only piecemeal engagement: cultural and family reunions. Important, sure, but is it likely to change North Korea’s behavior?
“All this is well and good, but, you know, North Korea does not care much about all these nice post-modern cultural engagements, all these family reunions and hockey matches,” argues Dr. Andrei Lankov, a regular NK News contributor and a professor at Kookmin University. “They care about what really matters: power and money.”
Trump, simply, wants results: for North Korea to stop its nuclear and missile tests
And while grand symbolic gestures may play well with liberal-leaning voters South of the DMZ, what motivates North Korea to engage with anyone, Lankov argues, is cold, hard cash.
“The main reason they deal with the outside world is to ensure their security and extract money, and this is not going to change,” he says. “So, the cultural exchanges, if judged from Pyongyang’s point of view, make sense only as long as they are helping to solve the main problems of security and income.”
When it comes to the relationship between the two Koreas, everything is – or at least can be made – political. Geopolitics aside, though, and which team will emerge victorious on Thursday night? South Korea’s press seems certain that the ROK has it in the bag. A recent article in Yonhap cited the fact that the North Korean women’s team has never qualified for a Winter Olympics (which the South has for next year’s Pyeongchang Games – but only because they are the host nation), and their poor performances throughout this week.
It’s certainly true that the team’s manager, Han Ho Chol, has sounded like something of a broken record this week: “We’ll try to be better next time” has been the mantra following each loss.
Michael Spavor, however, will be cheering on the DPRK women’s team with motivational slogans and thinks they’ve got a solid chance.
“The two teams are almost at par in international rankings but my money is on the North Korean team,” he says.
“Having met them many times they have been waiting for this opportunity to defeat their southern neighbors on their own turf for many years. But at the end whichever team wins, the Korean Peninsula still wins.”
Additional reporting: JH Ahn
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