Twelve North Korean female ice hockey players crossed the border Thursday to join their counterparts in the South to form the first-ever unified Korean Olympic team since the two sides split in the 1950s civil war.
Wearing red-and-white winter parkas emblazoned with North Korea's official name "DPR Korea," the 12 players were greeted with flower bouquets by their new teammates and their head coach, former U.S. collegiate player Sarah Murray, when they arrived at South Korea's national training center in Jincheon.
The North and South players will practice separately for several days before merging on the same rink. Their first match as a unified team is scheduled for February 4 in Incheon, when they face Sweden in a warm-up match.
The two Koreas have fielded a joint international athletic team only twice since the split -- a world table tennis squad in 1991, and a youth international football (soccer) team in that same year.
The surprise offer by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Games during his New Year's Day speech paved the way for restored dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul, which had been frozen due to North Korea's development of its nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programs in defiance of international sanctions.
The talks led to an agreement for both sides to march in the February 9 opening ceremonies under a unified flag, as well as the formation of the joint women's hockey squad.
But South Koreans have grown increasingly angry over the combined team, believing their compatriots will lose playing time to the North Koreans and that President Moon Jae-in gave up too much to the North in his eagerness to have Pyongyang participated in the Games.
The backlash has sent President Moon's approval ratings below 60 percent for the first time since taking office last May.