INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) - South Korean fans chanting, “We are one” and wearing shirts with the unification flag emblazoned on the front packed into a freezing ice hockey arena on Sunday to cheer on the joint Korean women’s team in a tune-up for this month’s Winter Olympics.
North and South Korea agreed last month to field a combined women’s ice hockey team and march together under one flag in Pyeongchang after a new round of talks amid a thaw in cross-border relations.
With some 3,000 fans packed into Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon, the Koreans, who have only practiced together for a week, lost 3-1 to Sweden.
While the result was a disappointment, hopes are high that the unified team could help improve ties.
“I am excited,” said Park Cheol-hyun, who came to watch the game with his wife and son.
“Even though the nuclear issue may not be resolved immediately, it will be good for the longer term if the two Koreas get closer. Otherwise, there is no way to resolve it.”
While the reaction to the North’s decision to participate in the Winter Games was met warmly in the South, the decision to form a combined women’s ice hockey team sparked a public backlash.
Critics said adding North Korean players to the South’s roster at the last minute would mean missed opportunities for home players and could hurt team chemistry.
“As a coach, it is hard to tell some of your players that you have been with for a quite a long time that they are not going be able to play, but the whole situation is out of our control. So we are trying to make the best out of it,” Sarah Murray, the head coach of the team, told a news conference after the game.
“There are a lot of challenges with adding players so close to the Olympics,” she said, adding that the language barrier was a real problem.
“The meeting takes three times as long. It’s really hard when you have three different languages on one team,” the Canadian said.
Both sets of players speak Korean, but the language has evolved differently in the North and South.
The International Olympic Committee said 12 North Korea players would join the South’s 23-player squad. The game day roster will continue to be 22 and the team has to include at least three North Koreans.
The North will also send athletes to take part in figure skating, short track speed skating, cross-country and Alpine skiing at the Feb. 9-25 Games.
The controversy has hit the popularity of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who hoped that the upcoming Olympics would pave the way for a breakthrough in resolving North Korea’s nuclear issue.
“I think young people have hostility about the North because they only heard bad things about North Korea for the past nine years,” said 19-year-old Chae Hyun-min, who was waiting in line to enter the stadium in freezing cold weather.
“This is the first step, and will bring the two Koreas one step closer to peace. The perceptions of young people will change gradually,” he said.
Ahead of the game, conservative groups held protests and tore up a North Korean flag. They called for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to step down.
“The unified team is politically contaminated,” 58-year-old Cho Young-hwan said, calling Moon “the puppet” of the North Korean leader.
“The Olympics offered an opportunity for the North to publicize its propaganda and create a conflict within South Korea.
“In this situation, how can the two Koreas be unified?” asked Cho, who is from Gangwon Province where the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games will be staged.
Editing by Peter Rutherford and Toby Davis