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.

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.

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.

Flags and paddles in London

The isolation of North Korea resulted in more than the usual amount of tension when, on July 26, the South Korean flag was displayed at the London Games as the North Korean women’s soccer team was being introduced.

North and South Korea have already faced off in table tennis once during this Olympics. In a men’s singles match on July 30, North Korea’s Kim Hyok-bong beat the South’s Joo Sae-hyuk 4 sets to 2. 

North Korea's poverty doesn’t stop it from trying to appear strong. Like other crumbling socialist states in the past, it still manages to invest in the training of athletes, some of whom are good enough to compete on a global stage at the Olympics.

North Korea has 56 athletes competing in 10 different sports in London. As of Saturday, North Korea had won four gold medals, which tied them for ninth.

On July 29, North Korean weightlifter Om Yun-chol set an Olympic record by lifting 168kg, three times his bodyweight. He is 5 feet tall and weighs 123 pounds. He will no doubt be a great propaganda tool for a state that loves to consider itself an overachieving underdog. After his impressive achievement, Om was careful to give credit to North Korea’s leader. "I am very happy and give thanks to our Great Leader for giving me the strength to lift this weight,” said Om through an interpreter.

Perhaps no other athletes in London bear a heavier diplomatic burden than the North Koreans. After a poor showing in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the North Korean soccer team was reported to have been publicly shamed. Radio Free Asia reported at the time that the team’s coach was forced to become a construction worker. There is no word yet on what fate might befallen the North Korean side who lost to their brethren from the South on Saturday.

Even the successful athletes in London are being careful to pay homage to North Korea’s leadership. On July 31, North Korea won a second gold in weightlifting when Kim Un-guk broke a world record in the men’s 62kg category. Kim chalked his performance up to the youngest of the Kim dictators: “I won first place because the shining supreme commander Kim Jong-un gave me power and courage,” he said.

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