GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — For hours Saturday, South Korean media was abuzz over the contents of a mysterious blue folder carried by the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un to her lunch date with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Turns out it wasn’t a secret plan for the newly unified Korean women’s hockey team to beat Switzerland.
That was always going to be a monumental task for either Korea, much less a unified team that had only a few weeks of practice together. Victory on this night at the Kwandong Hockey Center wasn’t going to come on the scoreboard, but from the idea that perhaps sports really can help bring people together, even at a time when things look so bleak.
And bring them together this hockey team did. Not by choice, and not for long, but for a few hours North Korean cheerleaders chanted and sang, South Korean fans waved unification flags and the team from Korea played like it was united even though the two countries are far from it.
On one side of the arena, about 75 North Korean cheerleaders dressed in matching red with white caps made noise from the opening faceoff. On the other, the president of South Korea sat with Kim’s sister and North Korea’s nominal head of state, separated only by IOC President Thomas Bach.
As political theater goes, it was grand. As hockey goes, well, it was grand political theater.
“Obviously this game had more meaning than just a game,” said Danelle Im, a Canadian who plays for the Korean team, “so it was great to be a part of it.”
The game was a mismatch pretty much from the opening faceoff, though you would have never known it by the constant noise made by tightly choreographed North Korean cheerleaders and the much looser fans from the South. It figured to be because no matter which side of the border they were representing, Korean hockey players simply aren’t ready to compete on such a big world stage.
It was the first Olympic hockey game for both Koreas, and it showed. So, too, did the problems of integrating the required minimum of three North Koreans on the squad in just a few days time.
An early shot by North Korea’s Han Soojin might have made a statement, if not altered the outcome. But it hit the crossbar and pretty soon the rout was on.
The final was 8-0, though it hardly mattered. This was more about finding a sliver of hope in relations between the two bitter rivals than it was about chasing dreams of Olympic glory.
Among the previously incomprehensible scenes seen in the last 24 hours at the Olympics was this one: After the game the top North Korean officials and the South Korean president joined Bach in greeting the Korean players and posing for pictures with them.
It capped a whirlwind 24 hours that began with the opening ceremony and included a lunch at the presidential mansion between Moon and Kim Yo Jong, the powerful Kim sister who came bearing the blue folder.
“We are one,” the crowd chanted during breaks in the action. At one point the North Korean cheerleaders unsuccessfully tried to get the crowd of about 3,600 to do the wave.
If the North Koreans were out of place on the squad, no one seemed to notice. Not the crowd, not the players, and not their Swiss opponents.
“I don’t even know which players are who,” Switzerland’s Phoebe Staenz said. “They all had the same jersey on.”
It took some doing to get to this point, even after North Korea agreed at the last minute to send athletes to the Winter Olympics.
Sarah Murray, the head coach from Minnesota who doesn’t speak Korean, had referred to the plan to field a unified team as “the situation.” There were rumblings of discontent over having to drop players to add the North Koreans, and of being pawns in a game they did not want to play.
But everyone was politically correct afterward. The players seemed to realize they had been part of an historic day, something that made it a bit easier to take such a lopsided loss.
“The girls have been great, they fit in well with our team,” said Marissa Brandt, who was adopted as an infant out of South Korea and whose sister plays on the U.S. team. “It felt special for sure. We could definitely feel the love and support of the fans.”
When it was over it seemed no one wanted to leave the ice. The Korean team lingered for pictures, shook hands and soaked in a moment in history that had nothing to do with the final score.
And that folder? It turns out it contained a personal letter from Kim Jong Un to South Korea’s president.
Presumably there was nothing in it about scoring on a power play.