Table tennis: Ping-pong diplomacy between the two Koreas as sporting ties thaw further

A South Korean woman holds "Unification flags" as she watches the preliminary round of the International Table Tennis Federation World Tour Platinum Korea Open in Daejeon on July 17, 2018.
A South Korean woman holds "Unification flags" as she watches the preliminary round of the International Table Tennis Federation World Tour Platinum Korea Open in Daejeon on July 17, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

DAEJEON, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) - Table tennis players from North and South Korea played alongside each other at an international tournament on Tuesday (July 17), winning their match-ups in the latest instalment of Korean sporting diplomacy.

The sport has long had an unusual impact in foreign affairs, most notably in the "ping pong diplomacy" of the 1970s between China and the US.

And sports have also had a role in the current rapprochement on the Korean peninsula, which was catalysed by the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in the south in February.

The two Koreas marched together behind a unification flag at the Games' opening ceremony and formed a sometimes controversial unified women's ice hockey team, while the host's President Moon Jae-in seized the opportunity to broker talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

Three months later, North and South Korea's women table tennis players combined into a united team rather than play each other in the world team championships quarter-final, although they went on to lose their semi-final and had to settle for bronze.

Now, after a historic summit in Singapore last month between the North's leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump, 16 North Korean players are taking part in the ITTF Korea Open tournament in Daejeon.

Four - including the North's 2016 Olympic women's singles bronze medallist Kim Song I - were to join a southern counterpart in the doubles, with the first two mixed pairs taking to the table on Tuesday.

It was an anti-climactic evening for one pairing, who progressed automatically after a Mongolian forfeit. The other duo triumphed in a close-fought 3-2 victory over their Spanish opponents.

The first time table tennis players from the two neighbours formed a joint team was for the world championships back in 1991, during an earlier period of rapprochement on the peninsula, when they shocked China to win the women's team gold.

"Table tennis has had a long history as a driver of peace, and we are happy to open a new chapter of table tennis diplomacy to promote peace on the Korean peninsula," said Thomas Weikert, the head of the International Table Tennis Federation.

'Beyond symbolism'

During periods of warmer ties the two Koreas - which technically remain in conflict after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty - have regularly sought to use sports as a symbol of reconciliation.

"Sports is the easiest and least controversial link the two Koreas can share, and there is little political burden in sports-related cooperation," said Lee Chang-seop, professor of physical education at Chungnam National University.

Past joint sports events had provided rare points of contact helping South Koreans feel that "North Koreans are humans, too", he told AFP.

Many joint teams have been hailed more for their symbolism than their performance - the Winter Olympics women's ice hockey team lost all five of their matches, outscored by a combined margin of 36 to 2.

But the prospects for table tennis may be rosier - South Korea is a power in the sport, with 18 Olympics medals, second only to China.

The 1991 team's month-long drama - from their first meeting to the victory over the nine-time world champions - was made made into a 2012 movie, As One, seen by nearly two million people in the South, which has a population of around 50 million.

"We have convened the best players from the both sides," said Kim Taek-soo, who coaches the South's men's team.

"So we will try to achieve something beyond symbolism and to make it to the semi-finals at least," he told reporters.