Skip to main content
winter games

North Korean cheerleaders perform during the Women's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round, Group B match between North Korea and Switzerland.Carl Court/Getty Images

The cheerleaders sang, clapped and waved flags, while the crowd roared with every smack of the puck.

This was Olympic hockey, but unlike anything many in the audience had seen before.

On the ice, South Korean and North Korean women skated in the same white uniform, the word "Korea" emblazoned in Latin script across a light blue map of the Korean peninsula. Looking on from the dignitaries box: South Korean president Moon Jae-in and, three seats away, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Their joint attendance was a coda to a momentous day in which Ms. Kim extended an invitation for Mr. Moon to meet with her brother in Pyongyang. Leaders of the two countries have only met twice since the Korean War.

But if forming a joint team was meant to foster a new unity in sport, the scoreboard offered dim judgment. In its first Olympic game against Switzerland, Korea lost 8-0.

The team was a political construct and for some South Korean fans, the loss underscored the reasons against joining forces with North Korea.

The "North Korean players are holding our players back," said Anthony Jeon, 24, a law student. They are "the same people as us, they're using the language as us, but I don't think they are the same country," he said.

The Saturday night game was a setpiece for one of the largest unified Korean displays at the Olympics, with three North Korean players in uniform and more than 100 North Korean cheerleaders in the stands. They danced, leaned into rink-circling waves and led chants of "Korea! We are one!"

In the stands, Ms. Kim clapped along to their rhythms, keeping a flawless beat and a keen eye on the gameplay.

But it did not offer much for Team Korea fans.

Switzerland drew first blood halfway through the first period on a short-handed play and continued to place pucks in the net, their players fist-pumping and cheering as they stretched the goal gap wider and wider.

The teams were most evenly matched with a Swiss player in the penalty box. Switzerland ended the game with 52 shots on goal to Korea's eight.

"We had great support from the people in the arena, but were not able to live up to their expectations," said Jung Su Yuon, a North Korean forward.

Having North Korean cheerleaders in the stands, she said, "I felt like I was competing in my own country." Playing in front of senior members of North Korean's leadership, she added, "was the greatest honour for me."

The immense pressure, however, weighed on the team. On Friday night, Ms. Jung and Park Jongah, a South Korean forward, were the penultimate torchbearers at the opening ceremonies, climbing side by side a steep set of stairs to the Olympic cauldron in front of a 35,000-seat stadium, and a global television audience.

Twenty-four hours later, they were on the ice while some of the most powerful leaders in each of their countries watched.

"I have never competed in front of so many people before, so I felt nervous," said Ms. Park. "And I also felt nervous that other teammates would feel nervous."

"Of course Switzerland was stronger than we were," Ms. Jung added. "But we didn't want to lose mentally. And we wanted to strive as one team for one purpose."

The blowout score did nothing to diminish the thrill for fans eager to see the two Koreas together. "It doesn't matter!" said Johnny Kim, 36, a hotel owner. "Because we are one!"

Yet the pageantry around a "Peace Olympics" has also created disquiet for many South Koreans. Inside the arena, Lee Dae-kyung, 60, trained binoculars on the seats where President Moon and Ms. Kim sat. It was not, for him, an entirely reassuring picture.

"I'm a little bit worried, because North Korea will never give up their intention to overpower South Korea," he said.

"We have to be wise, because North Koreans are politically and diplomatically very clever."

Even the cheerleading struck him as odd, with its coordinated swaying and flag-waving. It made him think of South Korea from decades ago. "It's very old-style," he said.

With minders looking on, the cheerleaders remained in their seats long after the game finished, singing homeland hymns. The few South Koreans left in the arena could make out some of the words, but the songs were unfamiliar North Korean choruses.

The stands were nearly empty when the cheerleaders stopped their singing.

Then they broke back into chant: "Korea! We are one!"