GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Even with more than two hours left before the puck was scheduled to drop between the Koreans and their heavily favored Swiss opponents, a taxicab couldn’t get anywhere near the arena. I’d assumed, and planned for, the first game featuring a joint team of players from both North and South Korea would be crowded—but the gridlock wasn’t the result of dense traffic or slow security lines. A few blocks away from Kwandong Hockey Centre, hundreds of South Koreans had gathered on the sidewalks—dozens of police officers keeping them there, off the streets—to demonstrate in support of the symbol of unification, or at least thawing relations, that these Olympic Games have quickly become.
I spoke with a friend in Seoul right after the “handshake heard ’round the world” between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and Kim Yo-jong, sister of the North Korean dictator, at the opening ceremony. He said the South Koreans he’d watched with barely noticed the moment; an ex-pat, he’d been the only one in his group who even recognized Kim. He told me they were skeptical of the good PR the North had generated with their willingness to play nice at Pyeongchang, and that they’re concerned Moon is being overly idealistic for giving them a platform. One media member who works outside of news echoed that to me, saying the handshake was “nothing special.” Just another untrustworthy bit of North Korean propaganda.
But if there’s anything Americans should be able to sympathize with, it’s a politically divided nation and on Sunday night the pro-unification faction was out in full force. The crowd sang “Arirang”—a Korean folk song that the athletes marched to in the parade of nations last night—and waved flags featuring the silhouette of the entire Korean Peninsula. A man with a microphone led the assembled masses in calls for peace and unification. “We want one Korea,” a demonstrator told me in English.
Everyone who bought a ticket to the game seemed to agree. Eight groups of 30 North Korean cheerleaders in head-to-toe red marched out just before puck drop. For the next two hours they kept up a near-constant routine of carefully choreographed cheers complete with flags, pompoms, and what looked like masks of North Korean speed skater Ko Hyon-suk (curiously they couldn’t master the wave). I found it unnerving. The South Koreans in attendance clapped along and waved their own Korean unification flags alongside official South Korean flags.
The hockey wasn’t good. The Koreans were overmatched from the outset but the crowd erupted in excitement for every completed pass. Anytime they got a scoring chance, even the eerily synchronized cheerleaders seemed to react with genuine elation. The game ended 8-0 in favor of the Swiss. The victors left the ice immediately. The Korean team, which had failed to score, formed a huddle while a group of South Koreans unfurled a banner version of the unified flag—reading “We Are One”—and North Korean cheerleaders sang and danced. Moon, Kim Yo Jong, and IOC president Thomas Bach shook the players’ hands down on the ice, and the photos were taken of the whole team together.