[Herald Interview] Playing ping-pong across the border

By Jung Min-kyung

[Eye] Table tennis prodigy-turned-coach recalls first unified Korean team’s victory in 1991, special friendship that blossomed

  • Published : Aug 16, 2018 - 14:53
  • Updated : Aug 16, 2018 - 15:16

Decades later, South Koreans still remember shedding silent tears as they watched a South Korean table tennis player stroke her North Korean teammate’s face before pulling her into a gentle hug -- right before the disbandment of the first inter-Korean sports team in history.

Hyun Jung-hwa, who led the team to victory at the 1991 World Championships in Chiba, Japan, alongside North Korean table tennis champion Li Pun-hui, smiled as she recalled the joy that quickly ruptured when both of them realized they might never see each other again.
Former table tennis player-turned-coach Hyun Jung-hwa poses for a photo during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Monday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“It was 1991, and we could not exchange phone numbers or addresses,” Hyun said. “I thought (Li) would come to the South during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but her name wasn’t on the roster. We have yet to meet each other again,” she said during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul on Monday. Her words were a stark reminder that the two Koreas remain technically in a state of war.

Following North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics held in the South’s alpine town of PyeongChang, Gangwon Province, in February, inter-Korean ties warmed up despite the bone-chilling weather. Such exchanges had been halted for nearly a decade as the North pursued a nuclear weapons program and launched military provocations that heightened border tensions.

The PyeongChang Olympics, where a unified women’s ice hockey team played against global rivals, enabled the two Koreas to further expand their cooperation in sports.

Another unified table tennis was formed to compete at the International Table Tennis Federation World Tour Platinum Korea Open held in Daejeon, 160 kilometers south of Seoul, in July. 

Hyun Jung-hwa, right, plays alongside North Korean table tennis player Li Pun-hui at the 1991 World Championships in Chiba, Japan. (Provided by Hyun Jung-hwa)

Hyun, who attended the competition as a spectator, watched history repeat itself as the duo of South Korean Jang Woo-jin and North Korean Cha Hyo-sim clinched the gold medal at the mixed double final, marking the Koreas’ first combined title in international table tennis since 1991.

“It reminded me of 1991, and I’ve always wanted people to know that the teamwork wasn’t scripted or orchestrated by politics. In Daejeon, I felt that sense of genuine teamwork once again.”

“There’s definitely a difference being teamed up with a North Korean compared to players from other parts of the world -- you can actually feel like you share the same blood running through your veins.”

Hyun also noted how the shift in politics since her time has changed the chemistry between South and North Korean players. She and Li were given a month to train together before the competition in Japan. But it was extremely difficult to warm up to each other at first, with political and emotional barriers standing in the way. 

Hyun Jung-hwa (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

“We were similar in many ways, but also very different with the different ideologies we each held,” Hyun said. “There were times when tensions escalated as political matters meddled with our teamwork. We tried to avoid discussing such sensitive matters, which did not help with building teamwork.”

The 1990s were a difficult period for inter-Korean relations. It was an era before the first summit between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000. North Korea’s bombing of a South Korean airplane in 1987, which killed a total of 104 passengers and 11 crew members, only fueled the notion of North Korea as a foe. The bombing was believed to have been an attempt to deter people from attending the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

“But it’s been 30 years since then, and a lot has happened between the two Koreas,” said Hyun.

“I think both South and North Korean players in Daejeon felt more at ease with the current mood of detente on the peninsula.”

But Hyun and Im eventually worked out their differences. Im had called Hyun “comrade” when they first met, but she began calling Hyun by her name once they bonded over meals and daily chats. As depicted in the 2012 South Korean film “As One,” they eventually succeeded in becoming a “team.”

Regarding the question of whether there was a turning point in their relationship, Hyun said, “It just came naturally because we were practicing together for a month. Li was actually physically ill at the time, and I just felt like I had to do my best to keep the team alive. I think Li appreciated that and tried to do her best, too.”

Now 48-years-old, Hyun is a coach of a professional table tennis team. Along the way, the Seoul Olympic gold medalist coached the South Korean national table tennis team from 2009 to the 2012 London Olympics.

She continues to style her hair in the same pixie cut that won the hearts of fans in the 1990s, but her thoughts on inter-Korean sports exchange have deepened with experience and time.

“Cross-border sports exchange should now go beyond forming temporary teams,” Hyun said.

“I believe South and North Korea compete at the same level in table tennis, and the sport is even more popular in North Korea. Hosting regular tournaments with players from both sides as participants would make the events more meaningful,” she added. 

Hyun Jung-hwa (right) and Li Pun-hui (left)at the 1991 World Championships in Chiba, Japan. (Provided by Hyun Jung-wha)

“Sports exchanges work for the two Koreas because it is not as ‘calculating’ as politics; it’s about working together under a single goal and walking a straight line toward it.”

Reminiscing about the miracle she and Im orchestrated nearly 30 years ago, Hyun still has not given up hopes of meeting her North Korean friend.

“The 2020 World Table Tennis Championships will be hosted by (the South Korean port city of) Busan, I’m hoping we can send an invitation for her to come and visit,” she said.

“Meeting her is something that I think of every day.”

By Jung Min-kyung (