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More than a game: when North Korea meets S. Korea at Olympic ping-pong

South Korea prevailed over North Korea in Olympic ping-pong today. It's one of the few contests between the bitter rivals where they're fairly evenly matched.

By Contributor / August 4, 2012



Seoul, South Korea

North Korea and South Korea may be bookends when it comes to their economies. But table tennis is another matter – especially on the global stage of the Olympics.

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Since the days of the famous "ping-pong diplomacy" that helped thaw relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China in the 1970s, table tennis matches haven't been typically been seen as significant international events. But any contest between North and South Korea is special. And Saturday’s Olympic match in London – in which second-seeded South Korea was victorious, 3-1, allowing it to reach the quarterfinals – provided a unique window into inter-Korean relations.

It was a unified Korean team that won the 1991 World Championships after elite players from the two Koreas were brought together to take on powerhouse China. The two players, Lee Boon-hee of North Korea and Hyun Jeong-hwa of South Korea, had been rivals but learned to cooperate.

The team’s success offered a sign of hope for those who still long for the Korean peninsula to be unified. Interest in the event was renewed this past May, when "As One," a film based on the team’s story, was released. The movie recreates the tensions of their coming together and their dramatic victory.

But nowadays, a team made up of players from both Koreas – the North, deeply isolated, and the South, the world's No. 13 economy – would be an unthinkable feat. Cooperation between two governments is virtually nonexistent, and communication often comes through threats voiced in the media.

As a sign of how far inter-Korean relations have fallen, a scheduled reunion in Beijing for Mr. Hyun and Mr. Lee was cancelled in May. The two had planned to meet in Beijing, where Lee trains disabled North Korean athletes. The proposed reunion ended up coming around the time of North Korea’s failed missile launch and was nixed by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.

“There were many reasons the meeting couldn’t be approved. They had asked to be allowed to meet on a personal level, but we had to consider the overall state of inter-Korean relations," said an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification in an interview.

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