Unified Korean Team, Victor on the Court, Tries to Win Hearts, Too

Park Ji-hyun of the unified team during a preliminary Asian Games contest against India.

HONG KONG — When North and South Korea fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the decision turned out to be more symbolic than practical: The team lost all of its games, sometimes by embarrassingly wide margins.

A unified women’s basketball team is now doing a whole lot better: It handily dispatched three of its first four opponents this month at the Asian Games in Indonesia, and will play in the quarterfinals on Sunday.

“North or South Korean, we all have the same desire to win,” Lee Moon-kyu, the team’s coach, told reporters this month after his players pummeled the tournament host, Indonesia, 108-40.

Feel-good sports diplomacy is one way that Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, is trying to soften the image of his nuclear-armed regime in the eyes of the South Korean public, analysts said. His strategy may help lessen short-term fears of war on the Korean Peninsula.

But for many in the South, a unified women’s basketball team is hardly a slam dunk for inter-Korean rapprochement, much less proof that the North would ever dismantle its nuclear arsenal.

These skeptics have seen previous South Korean presidents “pay high price tags for inter-Korean summits, but they have not yet seen North Korea truly cease hostilities and threats toward the South,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based expert on nuclear nonproliferation and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“We’re at a point where the broader South Korean public won’t believe it until they see it — after there’s a resolution to the nuclear issue and after there’s some political resolution to the inter-Korean divide,” she added.

The women’s hockey team that competed in the Pyeongchang Games was the first unified Korean squad to play in an Olympics. Until then, collaboration at major sporting events was generally limited to joint processions under a unified flag during opening ceremonies, said Udo Merkel, an expert on international sports events at the University of Brighton in Britain.

Sometimes the atmosphere at these events would turn hostile. For example, Mr. Merkel said, members of the South Korean basketball team turned their backs when North Korea’s anthem was played at the 2010 Asian Games, while North Korean fans ignored South Korea’s anthem and remained seated.

Even this year’s unified women’s hockey team faced blistering criticism at the Olympics — including from the team’s own South Korean players, who said they were dismayed by what they described as the last-minute addition of North Koreans to the roster. Criticism of the South Korean government’s decision to field the unified team hurt President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings at the time.

But the criticism did not deter the countries from fielding the first unified Korean teams at the Asian Games — in women’s basketball and men’s and women’s rowing and canoeing — just a few months later.

The women’s basketball squad faces Thailand in the quarterfinals on Sunday in Jakarta, and its chances of winning a medal are real: South Korea’s women’s team won the last Asian Games, in 2014, and the Yonhap news agency has reported that nine of the unified team’s 12 players are South Korean.

The team is likely to get a further lift from Park Ji-su, a 6-foot-5 South Korean center who just completed her rookie season with the Las Vegas Aces of the W.N.B.A. (She uses the Americanized name Ji-Su Park there.) Ms. Park, 19, was expected to join the Korean team for its Sunday quarterfinal, days after completing her season in the United States.

The inter-Korean sports diplomacy at the Asian Games comes two months after Kim Jong-un’s landmark meeting in Singapore with President Trump, and at a time when the two Koreas are, among other things, briefly uniting families separated by war as well as making plans to establish a joint liaison office, a potential first step toward formal diplomatic relations.

Inside North Korea, the inter-Korean teams are likely to generate pride and enthusiasm, some of it based on a perceived obligation to be seen as a patriotic supporter of the Kim regime, said Kim Seok-hyang, a professor in the Department of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

(Mr. Kim, the North’s authoritarian leader, is an avid basketball fan who appears to have cultivated something of a bromance with the former N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman.)

Bronwen Dalton, a North Korea expert at Australia’s University of Technology Sydney, said that promoting sporting prowess as a measure of North Korean superiority can prove risky for the regime — when reality intervenes.

“It’s a tough gig, being a totalitarian dictator,” she said with a laugh.

But on the whole, Ms. Dalton added, selling sports diplomacy to the North Korean people is easier for the regime’s propagandists than, say, pursuing peace prizes or other accolades that are “formed by ideologies of pluralism and democracy and social justice.”

For Seoul, analysts said, a primary goal is providing a glimpse of a unified Korean Peninsula for South Koreans and the rest of the world.

The Asian Games also present an opportunity for President Moon to solicit support for his political aims from fellow Asian leaders, some of whom share the Trump administration’s position that full denuclearization in North Korea should be a prerequisite for lifting economic sanctions on the North, Mr. Merkel said.

In that sense, the three joint teams are all part of “keeping the flame burning after the fire was ignited at the Winter Olympics,” he said.

But Ms. Kim, the nonproliferation expert, noted that the South Korean public has grown skeptical over the years — not only of North Korea, but of how its own government deals with the Kim regime. She said South Koreans in their 20s and 30s, in particular, tend to be less ideological about North Korea than their parents, and more concerned about the financial burden of uniting with poorer neighbors.

“To them, their own personal financial prosperity is far more important than some intangible vision for unification,” she said.

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