Olympics: South Korean gymnast 'awed' by wefie fame after picture with North Korean competitor

Lee Eun Ju of South Korea (right) takes a selfie picture with Hong Un Jong (left) of North Korea.
Lee Eun Ju of South Korea (right) takes a selfie picture with Hong Un Jong (left) of North Korea. PHOTO: REUTERS

(AFP) - South Korean gymnast Lee Eun Ju, who found herself in the international spotlight after taking a wefie with a North Korean competitor in Rio, said on Friday (Aug 12) she was surprised by the extraordinary response to such a simple act.

A snapshot of Lee and North Korea's Hong Un Jong posing for the wefie on Lee's cellphone swiftly went viral on Twitter, with many hailing the image as a perfect illustration of the Olympic spirit.

The photo has been tweeted and shared hundreds of thousands of times, with the likes of International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach describing it as a "great gesture."

In a radio interview with South Korean broadcaster KBS on Friday, the 17-year-old said the decision to grab a wefie with Hong had been totally spontaneous.

"I saw her and asked to take a picture together as a souvenir," Lee said.

"I didn't expect such a huge reaction so I'm still awed by that," she added.

 

Lee was only nine when Hong - 10 years her senior - became the first female North Korean gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008.

The two had never met before Rio, but Lee said she had been impressed watching Hong compete on television.

The photo of the two athletes resonated at a time of growing tension between North and South Korea who technically remain at war since the 1950-53 Korean War concluded without a formal peace treaty.

Civilian communication between the two countries is almost non-existent and South Koreans are forbidden from travelling to the North without prior permission.

The international sporting arena offers one of the rare opportunities for some North-South bonding, although the level of interaction is usually dictated by the prevailing state of relations.

In the past, the two nations have fielded joint teams for some sporting events and they marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 summer Olympics.

That initiative ended in Beijing due to heightened tensions on the divided Korean peninsula.

"I don't really know about politics, but I don't think we have a terrible relationship with North Korea," Lee said in another interview.

"We mingle and say hello with athletes from other countries, so why can't we (North and South Koreans) do that?" she asked.

Lee was eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the gymnastics competition in Rio and said she had not spoken to Hong since.