Koreas Mark Big Moment in Olympic Unity With Japan Matchup

(Bloomberg) -- The divided Koreas reached their biggest moment of unity at the Winter Olympics by facing a common historical adversary: Japan.

Even though a unified Korean team of ice hockey players lost 4-1 to Japan Wednesday, the symbolism of a divided nation taking on its former colonial ruler in an Olympic match was palpable. Days earlier South Korean President Moon Jae-in had snubbed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for advocating military drills against North Korea.

“That one goal means so much," said Park Geun-taek, 42, a middle-school teacher who brought all his 31 students to the nearly packed stadium. “It’s not only their very first time scoring a goal during the Olympics, but it’s a goal that two Koreas made together against Japan. I see that this symbolic game can improve relations with the North going forward.”

Many people in both Koreas harbor mutual resentment toward Japan for colonizing their peninsula for 35 years until its defeat in World War II. The rule led to the exploitation of natural resources and human labor for Japan’s expansion into the rest of Asia. Earlier this week, Olympic broadcaster NBC apologized and removed a U.S. commentator after he said on air that every Korean looked up to Japan as an example of their economic transformation.

The female ice hockey match came as South Korea and Japan continue to spat over compensation for Korean “comfort women,” a euphemism describing women forced into sex slavery by Japan’s imperial army in the early 20th century.

In a summit held before the opening ceremony last week, Abe said the U.S.-South Korean drills should proceed as planned and Moon said it was embarrassing for the Japanese premier to mention a “matter of sovereignty.” Moon had earlier asked the U.S. to postpone the annual exercises to encourage North Korea’s participation in the Olympics.

“The two Koreas playing as a joint team alone is significant enough but the fact that we are competing against Japan is incredibly symbolic,” Kim Seong-kyung, 30, a Seoul resident who stood in line with her husband for two hours, said before the game began. “I believe just scoring one goal would mean so much in terms of improving South-North Korea relations. If we win this game against Japan, it will be remembered as a historic day.”

The 35-member unified team consisted of 12 North Korean players. The team lost both of its previous matches by 8-0. Moon watched the first game, played with the Switzerland, in person with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong.

Moon faced a public uproar when his administration went ahead with fielding the joint team without consultation with South Korean players. Moon later admitted he should have been more thoughtful. The two Koreas marched together in the opening ceremony and will repeat the act in the closing ceremony on Feb. 25.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.