It’s probably safe to say most fans love sports for their drama above all else — the fleeting minutes after a miraculous comeback or championship-winning score that transcend some of life’s most memorable moments. But sometimes, our affinity for those instants makes us conjure up narratives that aren’t there.
I felt myself doing this on Wednesday, when news broke that North and South Korea had struck a deal for a gesture of unity at the Winter Olympics in February. There was doubt last year whether the hermit nation would even attend the Games (North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the South’s capital, and doesn’t have a strong attendance record at the winter edition). Now, the North and South will march together under a single flag during the opening ceremony and field a joint women’s hockey team.
It’ll be a strange experience for many here in the United States to watch a pair of countries technically still at war standing under one flag, but back where I was born, it represents what people want to see. Most South Koreans dream of reunification (there’s an entire government agency devoted to it): It’s just a matter of whether they trust their northern neighbors enough to even entertain the prospect of cooperation. There’s an inherent feeling on the peninsula that the two countries are one nation, but it’s hard to forget times like 1987, when the North bombed a southern passenger jet leading up to Seoul’s opening ceremony.
Still, when an announcement like Wednesday’s comes around, the sentimental sports fan in me can’t help but think of the perfect, stranger-than-fiction setup for another classic story. What if the unified Korean team makes a Cinderella run to a medal? It would be a completely different — and perhaps even more incredible — Miracle on Ice. What if the decades of animosity and conflict finally started coming to an end in Pyeongchang?
But I’ve already lived through this moment. Sixteen years ago, my family settled into the seats of the Seoul World Cup Stadium to watch an exhibition between the North and South. It was the two teams’ first meeting on the pitch in more than a decade. Soccer’s popularity had exploded in East Asia thanks to South Korea and Japan’s joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup, where the former upset the likes of Spain and Italy in a magical run to the third-place match.
Sixty-thousand fans were in a frenzy, chanting “unification” and “peace in Korea.” The game was a boring, scoreless draw, but after the final whistle, the competitors embraced. Cameras focused in on a South Korean player stripping off his uniform to reveal underneath: “SOUTH KOREA LOVES NORTH KOREA.” The North would send more than 300 athletes south to the port city of Busan later that month for the 2002 Asian Games. North Korean leader Kim-Jong un was still in college; President Donald Trump was merely a loud-mouthed real estate mogul. The end of the conflict seemed just around the corner.
South and North Korea have faced each other more than 20 times on the soccer field since that night. The North has also continued its aggressive nuclear program, and the two nations even fired artillery at each other in 2010. I have always cherished the healing capacity of sports — the Red Sox helping Boston recover from the Boston Marathon bombings with a World Series title in 2013, the Astros doing the same for Houston after Hurricane Harvey last year — but this old wound is too deep to be ameliorated by any ballgame.
So, despite a glimmer of hope, South Koreans will soon return to a reality of uncertainty on the peninsula. For three weeks, however, there will be a team the entire nation can get behind. It’s even more significant in an Olympics that has failed to drum up much local or global interest, and if it can make it out of group play, the joint women’s hockey squad could command the spotlight in Pyeongchang, which will be without NHL stars or a true American-Russian rivalry.
Speaking of Americans, it’s tough to predict how this Korean embrace will be received stateside. It would be easy to root against the athletes, considering North Korea’s threat to the United States. But the competitors under the unified flag don’t reflect their governments. Despite generations of conflict, a group of women will take the ice next month as a Korea on the world stage after war destroyed a country and countless families nearly 70 years ago. The team may not win a medal, but maybe its simple existence is enough of a miracle to bring some unity — however temporary — to today’s fractured world.
Ollie Jung is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column, “Jung Money,” runs Fridays.