GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> In their first and second games together at the Olympic Games, the players on the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team suffered humiliating shutout losses against Switzerland and Sweden.
But for the only team to compete here with athletes from both North and South Korea, a 4-1 loss against Japan today was the most painful defeat.
In what has been an Olympics rife with geopolitical undertones, the game between Japan and Korea was the most political of all, pitting the unified Korean team’s players against rivals from the country of their former colonial occupiers.
“I would say the games against Japan, more than anything else, have been something that have brought the North and South Koreans together,” said Randi Heesoo Griffin, who scored the only Korean goal. “We’ve been saying we really need to win this game.”
Symbolically, the showdown was much more than a meeting between teams ranked ninth and 22nd internationally. The colonial legacy lingers over any game played between Japanese and South Korean teams. This one was played in an especially heated atmosphere: Before the Pyeongchang Olympics began, tensions between the Japanese and South Korean governments had been building over long-standing disputes about history and territory.
About a month before the opening ceremony, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, even hinted he might not attend the games.
At the opening ceremony, most of the news media focused on the fact that Vice President Mike Pence, who led the U.S. delegation, did not stand during an ovation for the unified Korean Olympic team as it marched into the stadium under one flag. But Abe did not stand, either.
And when an NBC commentator suggested during the opening ceremony that “every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, technological and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation,” the comment ignited so much anger in South Korea that NBC issued an apology and dropped the commentator from its coverage.
North Korea’s participation in the games, including the presence of high-level emissaries including Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, has fanned Japanese insecurity that the North’s charm offensive will drive a wedge between the South, Japan and the United States.
The Korea versus Japan game was “a physical representation of a concern that Japan and the United States have,” said Jim Schoff, a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “‘What if we lose the South to the North in a battle of hearts and minds?’”
The volume in the stadium today exceeded the first two games that Korea played here, a pair of 8-0 losses to Switzerland and Sweden.
Other than a small group of Japanese spectators who appeared to be mostly family members of players, the arena was dominated by Korean fans waving flags bearing a pale blue map of the unified peninsula. Together with the North Korean cheerleaders, who have become a familiar presence in the Kwandong Hockey Center over the past week, the spectators sustained their chanting throughout the game, shouting “Be strong!” and “We are one!” on an endless loop of frenzied energy.
When Griffin scored her goal, midway through the second period, cutting Japan’s lead to 2-1, the crowd leapt to its feet and roared with joy.
For many fans, the political and historic charge of the game was the point.
“I am not very interested in hockey,” said Cho Young-kyu, 20, who attended with a group of high school friends. “I decided to come here because it is a game between Korea and Japan and it is a unified Korean team.” Several other fans expressed similar interest in the political drama rather than the sport.
Cho, who wore a baseball hat with a peace symbol embroidered on it and carried both a South Korean and a unity flag, took special glee in pointing out a couple of tiny dots on the unified flag. They represented tiny islands in the sea between Japan and the Korean Peninsula, known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, that are administered by South Korea but claimed by Japan. “These are our islands, not Japan’s islands,” he said.
Given the circumstances, today’s game played out with civility. When Japan scored, there was no booing. Instead, Korean fans quickly rebounded with chants of “It’s OK!” The Japanese fans applauded the Korean team at the end of the game.
Overall, relations between Japan and South Korea have generally been on a long-term upward trend. In the late 1990s, South Korea dropped its bans against Japanese films, videos and comic books, and began allowing Japanese performers into the country. In 2002, when the countries co-hosted soccer’s World Cup, Japanese fans rooted for South Korea after Japan’s team was eliminated.
But under Abe’s leadership, the relationship between the countries has deteriorated. In 2013, Abe’s party proposed new language for school textbooks that inserted a more nationalist tone, requiring the history books state that there is still a dispute about whether the Japanese army played a direct role in forcing so-called comfort women from Korea and elsewhere to work as sex slaves for its soldiers. Most foreign historians say the brothels could not have been run without the military’s cooperation.
The countries signed an agreement in 2015 to resolve the comfort women dispute, but after the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, was elected last fall, he pledged to review the deal. In January, Moon said he would leave the deal intact, but he called for a renewed and sincere apology from Japan, a declaration that provoked frustration in Tokyo. At a summit meeting with Moon immediately before the start of the Olympics, Abe reiterated Japan’s position that the 2015 agreement should be “final and irreversible.”
But it was the presence of North Korea that has threatened to open the biggest gap between Japan and the South.
“North Korean media and propaganda still remain heavily anti-Japanese, and the North Korean leadership family’s legitimacy is largely based on their anti-Japanese fight,” said Gordon Flake, the chief executive of the Perth USAsia Center at the University of Western Australia. “So you have this family and this culture and society who haven’t begun the process of reconciliation, so by definition, any time you have a unified Korean effort it will be relatively more hostile to Japan.”
Indeed, during the pairs figure skating short program Wednesday morning, the North Korean cheerleaders in the stands cheered for the South Korean pair and politely applauded skaters from other countries including China, Russia, Austria and the Czech Republic. But when a Japanese pair skated, the cheerleaders sat with their hands on their knees and did not clap.
South Korea’s emerging détente with North Korea worries Japan, which has so far stuck firmly with the Trump administration in calling for implementing sanctions and predicating any substantial talks with the North on denuclearization.
Observers say that ultimately, Japan and South Korea have too much in common to let the diplomatic fireworks of the Olympics derail a long-term relationship. “There’s almost a recognition that these historical issues are going to continue to irritate and even at times undermine the ability of Tokyo and Seoul to work together,” said Kathleen Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and a fellow at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center.
“But I think the South Korean public is pretty sophisticated about this,” she added. “And they do have a shared interest in trying to work together on the North Korean nuclear missile and defense issues.”
Each team could point to a milestone after Wednesday’s matchup. Japan’s victory was its first in three trips to the Olympics. And Griffin’s goal was Korea’s first in the Pyeongchang Games, a bright spot for a team — bolstered not only by a dozen North Koreans but also several players raised in North America — that surrendered 20 goals in its three games.
For some fans, that highlight offered a ray of hope in defeat. When Griffin scored, Park In-heang, 54, watching from the stands, said he was moved by the possibility that sports might plant the seed of peace.
“This is our first goal,” he said. “It makes me see the future.”