South Korean President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-Jong pose with the Unified Korean Women's ice hockey team. Photo: Reuters / Brian Snyder
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, Kim Yong-nam and Kim Yo-Jong pose with the Unified Korean Women's ice hockey team. Photo: Reuters / Brian Snyder

No team at the 2018 Winter Olympics has won as much global attention as the Inter-Korean Women’s Ice Hockey Team.

Inter-Korean reconciliation maneuvers on the sidelines of the “Peace Olympics” have raised tenuous hopes of lowered tensions on the divided peninsula. Since the integration was announced on January 17, the women’s hockey squad has been the epicenter of these hopes as the only unified team at the Games.

Even so, South Korea has been divided over whether the team represents a fairy-tale boost for inter-Korean relations, or a cynical, last-minute political ploy that will rob the southern athletes of their chances of Olympic glory.

Few people following the team are as attached to it – or as close to its players – as Kim Sung-soo. For the last year and a half, the artist has been documenting their endeavors and traveling with them as he puts together his first-ever documentary.

Disaster or bonanza?

The surprise news on January 17 that North Koreans would be grafted onto the South Korean team provided the nascent filmmaker with a massive bonanza – suddenly he was in the middle of one of the biggest stories in sports. Yet Kim’s first response to the news was incredulity.

“I thought, ‘How crazy – there is one month left now to make a united team!’” he recalled. “The North Korean team is much weaker than the South Korean team.” The South Koreans are world-ranked 22nd, while the North Koreans are ranked 25th, “but the level is very different.”

The South Korean team has, over the past four years, received considerable funding, and has imported six players – Korean-Americans and Korea-Canadians – and a top-tier coach in Sarah Murray of Canada.

But then it dawned on Kim that his first-ever documentary was suddenly a very hot property: the unified team is the biggest story of the Games, at least thus far. “My second thought was, ‘This could be a very interesting movie!’” he said. Moreover, a personal affinity with North Korea makes it more personal. “More than average South Korean people, I can put character into the movie,” he said.

A man for all seasons

Kim, 43, is a wine importer and singer – and now also a film-maker. “Sometimes I want to define myself as one thing,” he said. “But it is hard to do!”

Though born a South Korean, Kim’s family background is Northern. “My grandfather and father came from Kaesong,” he said, referring to the ancient Korean capital, which was South Korean territory before the 1950-53 Korean War but has been in North Korean hands ever since the fighting ended. “So, whenever I see North Koreans, I have a bit of a mixed feeling.”

Kim had the unusual opportunity of meeting a handful of North Koreans during an inter-Korean hockey match held in South Korea in April 2017.

“The players couldn’t speak, they had no power, they had to follow the decision… I asked one, ‘What does North Korea mean to you?’ and she said, ‘I had not thought about North Korea… North Korea is just another country.”

“I went to Gangneung resort and met North Korean players there by chance,” he said. “They said ‘hi,’ and told me there will be match between South and North.” The match ended in a South Korean victory – but Kim was seriously impressed by the on-ice action. “It was really exciting,” he recalled. “I cannot say I am a 100% ice hockey fan, but that North-South match was important to me, as South Koreans cannot usually meet North Korean people.”

An interest was sparked. A fan of Olympic films of the past – Kim cites Japanese film-maker Ishikawa Kon’s “Tokyo Olympiad” and controversial Third Reich auteur Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia” as influences – he decided to make his first-ever documentary around the 2018 Winter Games.

Naturally, the Korean Women’s Ice Hockey Team suggested themselves as a subject. He made some enquiries.

“I found that all the South Korean players had very interesting stories,” he said. “Usually in Korea, athletes are just athletes, but on this team, one player had graduated from a renowned art school, another graduated from Harvard and is studying for a PhD at Duke University, and there are six high school players on the team.”

With women’s ice hockey being a low-priority sport in Korea – there is one team in the country, the Olympic team – Kim sensed an underdog story and a possible fairytale. After leveraging connections in the sports community, he was accepted. He traveled with the team to training camps in France, Hungary and the United States, where he sensed an unusual bond between the players. ”They are so close to each other – it is almost like a cult!” he laughed.

Shock integration

Last summer, with the then newly-inaugurated Moon Jae-in administration tentatively reaching out to North Korean, South Korea’s sports minister raised the possibility of a joint team. The athletes were incandescent. “This is a team sport, and at that time – just eight months left before the Games – they felt there was not enough time, they got very angry, had many interviews with Korean media and fully expressed themselves,” Kim said.

However, amid missile and nuclear tensions, the North Koreans did not take the bait. “North Korean IOC member Ung Chang said, ‘Politics is first, sport is second,’” Kim recalled. “What he meant is: Before the politics is solved, sports cannot make a united team.”

The issue – and the player’s anger – evaporated. The team returned to training.

Then, following Kim Jong-un’s conciliatory New Year’s Day broadcast, the plan was resurrected by South Korea. The idea among the politicians was that as hockey is a large team sport, it would be feasible to integrate new players and – as South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon stated somewhat undiplomatically, the 22-ranked team would probably not win a medal anyway. (He later apologized for the comment.)

The athletes – they were on a trans-Pacific flight – were stunned when they were told the decision by reporters awaiting them when they landed in Korea. Coach Sarah Murray was dismayed, noting that the decision would “damage” her team.  The players were in disbelief. “They were shocked to hear the news,” said Kim. “They said, ‘Please just see sports as sports – not politics.”

The decision from on high detonated a controversy across South Korea. While some applauded the decision to improve inter-Korean relations, others were indignant. Fierce debates raged on social media. A petition was circulated, calling for related governmental officials to be arraigned for breaching the human rights of the South Korean players.

Kim – despite his affinity for North Korea – fell on the side of the naysayers. “It’s ridiculous!” he said.

He also saw sexism at work. “Why not the male team? Why only the female team?” he asked. “The males are stronger than the females – they have several foreigners, they have imported 6-8 Caucasian players – so I think for the government [a unified female team] is easier to deal with.”

The film-maker found his access cut as the team was swiftly muzzled.  “The players couldn’t speak, they had no power, they had to follow the decision made by the Korean government and the Korean federation,” he said. Even so, he managed to speak, off the record, to some. “I asked one, ‘What does North Korea mean to you?’ and she said, ‘I had not thought about North Korea,’” Kim said. “[My generation], say ‘We are one race, one nation’ but this young generation is different; for them, North Korea is just another country.”

Film-maker Kim Sung-soo attends the Unified Korean Women’s ice hockey team’s first Olympic match in Gangneung on Saturday. Note the squad of North Korean cheerleaders to his left. Photo: Andrew Salmon

The first Olympic match was scheduled for February 10. On January 25, 12 North Korean players arrived in the South to join the 23-member South Korean team. They were integrated. The new team played just one match before Pyeongchang: a friendly against Sweden in Incheon. A carefully controlled press event was scheduled alongside the match, where one North Korean announced: “We are a united team, we can beat any country.” (She did not take any questions.) Kim was unimpressed. “It was a cliché thing to say,” he opined.

The Koreans lost 3-1 to the Swedes.

Then it was the Olympics. President Moon Jae-in, accompanied by an A-list North Korean delegation including Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, traveled from Seoul to Gangneung to watch. They were joined in the stands by IOC President Thomas Bach.

Hopes were high. Over 1,500 local fans without tickets rallied with a group of pro-Pyongyang Japanese-Koreans at a nearby stadium to cheer in front of screens. Fans who did have tickets created an electric vibe in the stadium.

There was no fairytale, however. Inter-Korean spirit and home turf advantage proved no match for Swiss skill and teamwork. Before the eyes of the dignitaries, the fans and the world, the local heroines were humiliated, losing 8-0.

Kim, who watched the match in the stadium, was gutted. “There was a lot of pressure from high-ranked politicians and the players are very young, they have no experience of this,” he said. “That must have been burdensome.”

Kim was particularly irritated by some 120 North Korean cheerleaders who led chants and songs in the stadium. “I just sat behind them, and they – how can I say? – did their best, but their cheerleading was not appropriate,” he said. “When the Swiss players got a goal they still shouted, ‘We are winning!’ It was absurd.”

Covering the end

Their next match is against Sweden. That does not look hopeful. Then, in what is likely to be one of the most contentious events of Pyeongchang 2018, the unified Korean team takes on Japan, a country that is vilified if not despised both North and South of the DMZ, due to its colonial rule over the peninsula from 1910-1945, and its perceived failure to atone for its crimes. Disappointment could lie ahead.

“They are a historical rival to Korea, so this is gathering a lot of attention from all over the country, and I hope that will not be too burdensome for the players,” Kim said. “I don’t think we can win – Japan is nowadays very strong, very fast, a really good team. I just hope we do our best.”

If Japan wins, the Korean team will be knocked out of the competition. That means the North Koreans will go home, and the team will disband. However, for Kim, the end of their Olympic adventure is not the real break-up for the South Korean team. “The Olympics is not the final destination for them, that will be the World Championships in April 2018, in Italy,” he said. “The World Championships will be the last step; after that they will disband.”

April 2018 will mark the conclusion of an intense sporting, political and emotional roller coaster for the young athletes. “I want to capture that moment,” Kim said.