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United Korea Hockey Team Divides South


South Korea, wearing white uniforms, and North Korean players compete during their IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship Division II Group A game in Gangneung, South Korea, April 6, 2017.

The South Korean public has been generally supportive of North Korea participating in the upcoming Olympics as a way to foster cooperation with its nuclear-armed neighbor, but they are divided over the decision to field a joint women’s hockey team that critics say places politics over competitive fairness.

According to a recent poll, more than 80 percent of South Koreans welcome the North’s decision to send a large delegation to the upcoming 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in the South. But 70 percent of the public opposes the formation of a combined North, South team.

“I think it is not good. It feels like it is to show some kind of political result,” said Seoul resident Lee Hae-jun.

People pass by posters showing the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic mascots in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 17, 2018.
People pass by posters showing the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic mascots in Seoul, South Korea, Jan. 17, 2018.

The decision Wednesday to add North Korean players to the South’s women’s hockey team, which has already qualified for the games, is seen by many as unfair to the players, who earned their positions.

And the South Korean hockey coach, Sarah Murray, earlier voiced concern it could leave the team at a competitive disadvantage.

“Adding somebody in so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous, just for team chemistry, because the girls have been together so long,” Murray said.

The International Olympic Committee and the National Olympic Committees of the two Koreas must agree to combining the women’s hockey teams before such a roster change can be made.

Video: Watch Brian Padden's report

United Korea Hockey Team Divides South
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Olympic goal

But for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, the greater goal for this Olympics is to promote peace and eventually denuclearization with the isolated and repressive Kim Jong Un government.

“If the South and North form a united team and participate in the Olympic games, I think it will become a historic moment. Not only Koreans, but people from all over the world will be moved to see such a historic moment, and it will be a great start to resolve inter-Korean issues,” said President Moon while visiting Pyeongchang Olympics sites this week.

Though most South Koreans disagree with inserting politics into sports, some say fostering peace would be a better prize than a gold medal.

“I think they can sacrifice for a better future, and if we can live in peace with North Korea, there’s nothing better than that,” said Seoul resident Kim Joo-wook.

Since taking office in May 2017, the liberal leader in Seoul has tried to balance support for strong North Korean sanctions with increased engagement to persuade the Kim Jong Un government to enter into negotiations to end its threatening nuclear and missile programs.

FILE - South Korea's Lee Eun-ji, bottom right, scores a goal as North Korea's Kim Kum Bok, bottom second right, tries to block the puck during their IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship Division II Group A game in Gangneung, South Korea, April 6, 2017.
FILE - South Korea's Lee Eun-ji, bottom right, scores a goal as North Korea's Kim Kum Bok, bottom second right, tries to block the puck during their IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship Division II Group A game in Gangneung, South Korea, April 6, 2017.

North Korea delegation

During recent inter-Korean talks, Pyongyang accepted Seoul’s invitation to join in the Olympic Games, and the two sides agreed to engage in further military talks to avoid the potential for conflict.

In addition to fielding a combined women’s hockey team, the two sides this week worked out more details regarding the more than 400-member North Korea delegation planning to visit the South for the Olympics.

These include:

North and South Korean athletes will to walk together under a special united Korea flag during the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

North Korea will send a cheering squad of around 230 members that will root for teams from both the South and the North.

North Korea will send a 30-member Taekwondo demonstration team and a large orchestra that will both perform in the Pyeongchang region and in Seoul.

North Korea will also participate in the Paralympics that immediately follow the winter games.

And skiers from both sides will train at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang mountain resort before the games.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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