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Agreement on joint Olympic hockey team unprecedented feat for Koreas

South and North Korea on Wednesday agreed to form a joint women's hockey team at the upcoming Winter Olympics south of the border, an unprecedented breakthrough in the history of sporting exchanges between the two.

The South Korean women`s ice hockey team. (Yonhap)
The South Korean women`s ice hockey team. (Yonhap)

They have now passed the ball -- or the puck -- to the International Olympic Committee, which will convene a meeting on Saturday in its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, to finalize details of the team and other matters related to North Korea's participation in the PyeongChang Olympics.

The Koreas also agreed on a joint march at the opening ceremony on Feb. 9 in PyeongChang, some 180 kilometers east of Seoul. This is the first Winter Games held in South Korea, and also North Korea's first appearance at an Olympics south of the border, as it boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.

They have marched together at previous multi-sport competitions, most recently at the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China. But never before have they assembled a joint team at such events.

The Koreas competed as one nation at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship.

South Korea made the proposal for a single Korean hockey team during a high-level meeting with North Korea on Jan. 9. The North didn't immediately respond, and the proposal wasn't even made public until three days later.

And when the two sides went back to the table Wednesday for a working-level meeting, they reached the historic agreement.

South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan first raised the possibility of bringing two Korean teams together last June.

President Moon Jae-in also pushed the idea, on the grounds that it would help PyeongChang accomplish its vision of hosting an Olympic Games for peace.

The idea faded in the ensuing weeks, however, amid a series of North Korean military provocations, including its sixth nuclear test in September. Critics for the joint team didn't believe it would be feasible anyway, because South Korean players would have to be cut and team chemistry would be affected.

But this idea gained traction in the new year, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year's address that he'd consider sending an athletic delegation to PyeongChang 2018. The two Koreas agreed on the single women's hockey team after about two weeks.

Now the IOC and the International Ice Hockey Federation must determine the size of the joint team. South Korea is hoping to add a few North Korean players without cutting anyone from the 23-player South Korean roster. Actual game rosters are limited to 22 players -- 20 skaters and two goalies.

Officials here have said the IOC and the IIHF will seek understanding from other participating nations, because giving only the Korean team extra players can be seen as unfair. Indeed, Switzerland, South Korea's first opponent in the women's tournament on Feb. 10, said expanding the roster for the potential joint Korean team only would not be fair and would "distort the competition."

Meanwhile, South Korea will also have to assuage its own people at home. Angry fans have taken shots at the government for pushing the idea through without prior consultation with the national team or much regard for the fate of the current group of players.

After returning from the team's U.S. training camp on Tuesday, South Korea head coach Sarah Murray said she only heard about the joint team talks two days earlier, and she found out from her staff and reporters from CBC in Canada and NBC in the U.S., not from any government officials.

Some officials' display of blatant ignorance in the game of hockey hasn't helped the cause.

Both Do and Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon have said adding a few North Korean players to the current 23-player roster will not affect South Korean athletes because hockey is played in short shifts and players all get turns taking the ice.  

But they have failed to point out that hockey players don't just randomly take turns like a revolving door -- making timely line changes and playing matchups against opponents are huge part of coaching in this sport.

And with or without the expansion of the roster, at least some South Korean players are bound to lose playing opportunities.

If the Koreas are forced to keep the squad to 23, then South Korean players will have to be taken off to make room for North Koreans. Even if the Olympic squad expands to more than 23, it's unlikely that Korea's opponents will agree to let the team carry more than 22 players to games. This means a few South Koreans could be forced to watch the action from the stands as healthy scratches.

Then there is the practical problem of the benches and the locker rooms at Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung, the venue for all preliminary women's games, because they've been built for 22 players only.

Coach Murray has also spoken of "damage" to her team chemistry, saying it was "dangerous" to be adding new players this close to the Olympics. Because of the limited talent pool, the national team is the only women's hockey team in South Korea, and the current group of players has been preparing for PyeongChang 2018 together for the past three, four years. Throwing a few new players their way and expecting Murray to make it work, with the first game less than a month away, is simply asking too much.

And the talent discrepancy between the two Koreas is such that bringing North Koreans on board won't necessarily make Murray's team better.

South Korea is No. 22 in the world and on the rise, while North Korea is a team on the downslope at No. 25. The two Koreas faced each other last April during the IIHF Women's World Championship Division II Group A tournament in Gangneung. South Korea shut out North Korea 3-0, and the game was more lopsided than the score indicates

Murray acknowledged that there are some hard-nosed players on the North Korean team but she doesn't consider any of them good enough to crack South Korea's top three lines.

Murray, who claimed to have been "shocked" to learn that joint team talks were ongoing this close to the Olympics, said everyone will have to earn her ice time, be it South Korean or North Korean.

"I hope that I am not being pressured to play (North Koreans)," she said. "I just want the best players to play. If you play your best, then you earn your ice time. Whether you're South Korean or North Korean, they have to earn their place." (Yonhap)