JINCHEON, South Korea — About 50 miles south of Seoul, at the national team training center for South Korean athletes, Kim Taek-soo had a plan to watch Friday’s opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Olympics.
Kim, the coach of the South Korean men’s table tennis team, would settle onto his couch in front of his television and maybe invite a few athletes over. He would stay tuned at least until the unified team of South Korea and North Korea marched into the Olympic Stadium.
As the Koreans walked in, shoulder-to-shoulder in their long white anoraks, he expected his heart to pound inside his shirt. Once, so many years ago, he had been in their place.
Kim is 47 now, but he was 21 when he competed in the 1991 world table tennis championships with the first joint sports team fielded by South Korea and North Korea since the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
“For the 45 days we trained together; it was on the front page of every newspaper here,” Kim said through an interpreter on Thursday between practices at the training center. “They called it the beginning step to reunification.”
Kim realized much later that it was one step forward, before two steps back. Just as the unified team at this Olympics may be one step forward, before two steps back — considering North Korea’s propensity for shooting missiles and testing bombs. But in the long run, he said, that’s a problem for politicians. In his experience, as corny as it might sound, peace happens one friendship at time. And it’s basically true.
At the time, though, 26 years ago, there was so much hope for a broader peace. Within the Korean Peninsula, the joint table tennis team eased tensions, which were particularly high after the North Koreans blew up a South Korean airliner in 1987, killing all 115 on board.
The table tennis players’ governments gave the athletes strict instructions that forbade them from talking to one another about politics or asking about details of life in the opposite country. Not that the players followed those rules.
The world championships were in Japan, and the players from the North and the South stayed on different floors in their hotels. They found ways to sneak into each other’s rooms to talk, whispering to one another during practices that one or the other should leave the hotel room’s door ajar so the other player could easily slip in.
Kim said that he learned a lot about his doubles partner, Kim Kwok-chul, and that the two secretly chatted a lot, over beer even. He wouldn’t explain exactly what he learned about his partner because he still doesn’t want to get anyone in trouble.
But on the women’s side of that unified team, Hyun Jung-hwa will explain what the players talked about. From her office in a city outside Seoul, where she coaches a professional table tennis team, Hyun said she and North Korea’s Li Bun-hui, her doubles partner at those 1991 championships, would meet to gab about table tennis training methods, their families and their boyfriends.
Hyun would try to persuade Li to break out of her safe zone of simple rice with sauce, and try different kinds of foods, like kimchi, fish, meat, dry seaweed and red pepper paste. Li would ask about South Korean music, so Hyun gave her cassette tapes to take back to North Korea.
“She wanted to know how rich we were, and about how much money I made, in U.S. dollars, and I told her,” said Hyun, who became a celebrity in both Koreas when the Korean women’s team upset China to win the gold medal at those world championships. “I just told her everything, and we became friends. And now I miss her. It was just so natural that we were on a team together.”
Before that unified team came together, neither Kim Taek-soo nor Hyun could imagine the power of it. They were too young at the time and too single-minded, with their focus on their sport. Both said they realized much later that it had changed the way they looked at life and at their divided country. It forced them to think about reunification, even though it hadn’t been on their minds.
Both said they were crushed when the good feelings created by their joint team in 1991 vanished shortly after the world championships, just like Kim’s doubles partner vanished. For years after they played together, Kim asked other North Koreans how his partner was doing, but everyone said they had no information. The player had just disappeared.
“It’s so sad that the relationship was over and the positive relationship between the North and South was over, too,” Kim said. “But I learned that the political effort toward peace needed to be equal to the sports effort, and it just wasn’t there. I’m not sure if it’s going to be here this time, either.”
Kim believes that sports can build a bridge for diplomacy, though he said he could see why some people were protesting the unified team at these Games. The women’s hockey team will compete as one Korea, with players from the North and the South on it.
“I understand why the younger generation might not want a unified Korea at these Olympics,” he said. “They just don’t have an emotional attachment to North Korea. And this generation often puts themselves first before they consider a bigger cause. They don’t have a reason to push for a unified Korea.”
Kim said some table tennis players had recently asked him what it was like to play on that unified team. He told them it was the experience of a lifetime — but that the women’s hockey team would probably not end up feeling as strongly about it.
The joint hockey team for this Olympics trained together for just a few days at the training center here, in a building down the street from the table tennis center, in another part of the sprawling national team campus. On the hockey building was a banner with an image of a unified Korea, like the one on the flag carried by the joint team at the opening ceremony.
But Kim didn’t have a chance to see the team, or meet any of the North Korean players. He said he was too busy preparing his table tennis team for a coming international tournament.
He was happy to wait until the opening ceremony, where the hockey squad marched as one.
Kim was sure he’d get emotional just seeing it — but only because it would remind him of his own experience. When asked if the moment would elicit tears, he slapped his leg and laughed.
“Oh, no, no, no,” he said. “It’s not going to be that emotional. This is a completely different time in Korea. Will the unified team change anything this time? I know that only the people in politics can answer that.”
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