North Korea’s band of all-female supporters was unable to inspire the historic joint Korean women’s ice hockey team as they were dumped out of the Pyeongchang Olympics with an 8-0 defeat to Sweden today.
The unified team for the Winter Games in South Korea was the product of a landmark deal between the South and North Korea – the neighbours still technically at war – after a year of high tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.
The home crowd – seated among them the North Korean cheerleaders – roared their players as they skated onto the ice in their blue-and-red jerseys, “KOREA” emblazoned over a pale blue silhouette of the divided peninsula.
The joint team is deeply symbolic, but as a hockey side they were at the Games with little hope of making a serious impression in terms of the competition.
And so it proved as they were hammered 8-0 for the second time in a row, this time to the Swedes, ranked five in the world.
Sweden were 3-0 up in just 10 minutes and the heavy defeat means Korea play Japan on Wednesday in their final match in a dead rubber.
But even as the home team were being pounded, the 200-strong North Korean cheerleaders in red, blue and white tracksuits chanted, “Cheer up”, clapping and waving mini-unification flags in unison and setting off a Mexican wave.
The unity was interrupted when a four-member South Korean cheering group, in tight white T-shirts and pink shorts, skipped and hopped to Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend.
The North Koreans responded with songs of their own – mostly old folk numbers, including a ballad longing for one’s home town – showing a deep cultural divide between the two halves of the peninsula.
The Games have triggered a rare moment of reconciliation between the two Koreas.
Only a few months ago, Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear tests and exchanges of threats with Washington were driving tensions sky-high.
But in a whirlwind of Olympic diplomacy, hundreds of North Koreans came South last week to attend the Pyeongchang Games, and in extraordinary scenes the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong cheered the unified team together with the South’s President Moon Jae-in.
‘Play with one mind’
The unified hockey team was hastily assembled only two weeks before the Olympics began – and it showed in the one-sided losses to Switzerland and now Sweden.
Local fans at the stadium were more bothered about the significance of the joint team.
“I know we lack skill compared to other teams but I hope they will play with one mind,” said Kim Sang-wook, 62, from Seoul.
Koo Bon-jae, a 20-year-old student from the South Korean capital, added: “I was initially against it but I was touched after seeing them on the ice together.”
But not everyone was in favour and the addition of North Korean players to the team had provoked controversy in the South, with accusations that Seoul was depriving some of its own players the chance to compete at a home Olympics for political purposes.
Since the division of the peninsula the two Koreas have only competed as unified teams in 1991, when their women won the team gold at the world table tennis championship in Japan, and their under-19 footballers reached the world championship quarter-finals in Portugal.