'So proud': Parents' views on joint Korea hockey team evolve

When the Koreas suddenly began the push to form a joint Olympic team in women's hockey, angry parents of South Korean players considered public demonstrations against the notion. They thought the plan would cost their daughters time on the ice — and, just as important, put them right in the crossfire of inter-Korean politics.

Once the Pyeongchang Olympics opened, though, attitudes started changing.

As Team Korea becomes one of the hottest newsmakers in the Winter Games, their daughters are drawing crowds of spectators and journalists who want to know more about a squad at the center of rare rapprochement moves between the two rival Koreas split along the world's most heavily fortified border for 70 years.

"I'm so proud of my daughter," said Woo hee-jun, mother of South Korean substitute goalie Han Dohee, who hasn't hit the ice in all three of her team's preliminary-round matches. "If Dohee plays, I would be happy to see that, but I still come to the stadium to root for the joint team because she's part of it."

All three games at the Kwandong Hockey Center were filled with thousands of spectators chanting "We are one" and waving a blue-and-white "unification flag" that North and South Korean hockey players put on their uniforms instead of their national flags. Hundreds of others waited in lines to enter the stadium — a highly unusual scene in a country without a professional women's hockey team.

The team's first two matches against Switzerland and Sweden both ended in crushing 8-0 defeats. It lost again to historic rival Japan 4-1 on Wednesday. But world media cared more about the historic significance of the games, rather than scores, and the team's first goal recorded Wednesday. After the debut game Saturday, Swiss players and their coach were bombarded with questions about how they felt going up against such a historically important team.

After her team's Japan match, Han went up to the stand to meet her mother, grandmother and other family members.

"I feel sorry to my family because I failed to play on the games. I should train harder," Han said. "I really want to (play) and I will just get myself prepared to play anytime."

Woo said she had a "bittersweet feeling" because the Korean team clinched its first goal but that she couldn't see her daughter on the rink again.

The squad's formation initially triggered a serious backlash in South Korea, with a dozen North Korean athletes being added to South Korea's 23-person team. A survey showed that about 70 percent of South Koreans opposed the team's makeup.

South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon tossed fuel on the fire after local media cited him as saying his nation's hockey team was already "out of the medal range" while backing the idea of a combined team. He later offered a public apology, though he said his comments were taken out of context.

Woo said she was initially quite frustrated at the joint team plans. The 12 North Korean hockey players include a goalie — her daughter's position. "It didn't make sense," she said. "But it was something the government was pushing to do, and we are weak so that we had no other options (other than) to follow its decision."

Woo said she's a bit relieved after her daughter asked her not to worry too much because she and the North Korean goalie, Ri Pom, could learn from each other. Han confirmed Wednesday that she doesn't feel any rivalry against Ri, saying she's getting along with all 12 North Korean players. She described them as "innocent" and "pure-hearted."

Heo Saeng-gum, mother of South Korean defender Kim Selin, who appeared in both of the preliminary round matches, said she feels very sorry for the South Korean players who could lose playing time. "If somebody is taken off an entry, they would suffer the pains and a sense of loss."

Nevertheless, Heo considers her daughter an "honor of our family." Her husband, Kim Woo Il, said he's proud of his daughter for "marking a chapter in the history" of inter-Korean relations and paving the way for a chance to promote hockey in South Korea.

Every move by North and South Korean players was in the news. They held birthday parties for two North Korean athletes, took a selfie together, created a dictionary to overcome a linguistic divide between the Koreas and visited an east coast beach together to enjoy winter breezes and sodas.

On Monday night, when South Korean forward Choi Jiyeon spoke to reporters that she's grown close to two North Korean players, Hwang Chung Gum and Kim Hyang Mi, she called them "eonni," a Korean word used when a woman refers to an elder sister or friend.

"The eonnis approached and talked to me first, and they cared for me," Choi said.

After the Olympics, Korean players will be separated, probably for good, because the two Koreas bar their citizens from visiting each other or exchanging phone calls, letters and emails.

"The other day," Woo said, "Dohee told me she'll likely cry because there are no ways to stay in touch with North Korean players once they leave here."


Follow Hyung-jin Kim on Twitter at @hyungjin1972. More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Nation World

Here comes more rain: Severe weather with strong winds, flooding possible
Here comes more rain: Severe weather with strong winds, flooding possible

The Miami Valley region is under a flood watch until 10 a.m. Sunday, and strong winds are possible that could down trees and knock out power to local residents. A good chunk of the region has a “marginal risk” for severe weather, including near U.S. 36 north of Troy and the area stretching from the city of Dayton to Xenia and Springfield...
Perilous times for historically black colleges
Perilous times for historically black colleges

Two years ago, Amelia Smith received the one thing she thought she always wanted – a blue envelope from Spelman College. She had been accepted to what many consider the finest black college in America. Her grandmother went to Spelman. So did her mother. And her aunt. And her sister, who’s a senior there now. So Smith wasn’t surprised...
School expert: How to help at-risk students and know where ‘the line’ is
School expert: How to help at-risk students and know where ‘the line’ is

Schools aiming to minimize violent incidents should teach students and staff how to reach out to at-risk students, as well identify which types of warning signs are most serious, an Ohio school psychologist says. Local schools have fortified doors, added cameras and in some cases armed staff in recent years, but Erich Merkle, past president of the...
‘Biodigester’ farm in Bath Twp. raises stink among neighbors
‘Biodigester’ farm in Bath Twp. raises stink among neighbors

Residents on Herr Road in Bath Twp. say they can’t go outside their homes on days when the smell emanating from a neighboring farm is strong. The smell they say, started around 2014, when Pitstick Farms started trucking in biosolids and other materials from nearby wastewater treatment plants and turning it into energy and useable fertilizer....
Troy groups disagree on historical significance of 1800s church
Troy groups disagree on historical significance of 1800s church

Miami County Family Abuse Shelter leaders are ready to move forward with expansion of the Franklin House in downtown Troy despite continuing opposition to the agency’s plans to demolish an 1830s church for the project. TRENDING: MAP: Here are all the new businesses that came to downtown Dayton last year The debate on the future of the former...
More Stories