INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) - Angry demonstrators stamped on a picture of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a joint North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team came together for the first time, losing 3-1 to Sweden in a practice match.
The unified team for the Pyeongchang Olympics is a product of a landmark deal between the two rivals following a year of high tensions over the nuclear-armed North’s weapons ambitions.
But the addition of North Korean players has provoked controversy in the South, with accusations that Seoul is depriving some of its own players of the chance to compete at a home Olympics for political purposes.
The joint team of North and South Korean female hockey players tested the ice for the first time in a warm-up match against Sweden, five days before the Winter Games officially open.
The capacity 3,000 crowd roared as the team – including four North Koreans – glided onto the ice at the Seonhak International Ice Rink in Incheon, wearing blue and red uniforms with KOREA emblazoned across their chests.
But outside the arena, security was tight as protesters faced off with supporters of the joint team.
Those in favour of the North Korean presence chanted “Peace Olympics”, while protesters just across the street shouted “Pyongyang Olympics”, suggesting the North had been allowed to hijack the Pyeongchang Games.
Dozens of protesters yelled criticisms of the North into speakers, trampling on a picture of leader Kim and ripping up blue and white unification flags.
The practice match against Sweden was the first – and only – match for the unified team since 12 North Koreans joined the southerners on Jan 25.
“Maintaining peace between the North and South is the most urgent issue,” said Park Cheol Hyun, 44, who came to Sunday’s game with his family. “It’s important to achieve that through the Olympics and I think the unified team is very meaningful,” Park added.
The unification flag hung next to the Swedish flag in the arena and the Korean folk song Arirang, which dates back more than 600 years, blared from the speakers instead of the national anthems of the two Koreas before the game.
Since the division of the peninsula, the two Koreas have competed as unified teams only 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.
The South Korean public has been heavily divided on the issue of the unified team, hitting the popularity of President Moon Jae In, whose approval ratings have dipped below 60 per cent – the lowest since he took office last May.