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In this April 6, 2017 file photo, South, wearing white uniforms, and North Korean players compete during their IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship Division II Group A game in Gangneung, South Korea.Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press

Werner Koidl likes to joke that he is more supportive of North Korea's women hockey players than many North Koreans themselves.

For about seven years, he has faithfully travelled to international tournaments attended by the North Korean team, sitting and watching every game. Often he and his friends – the few members of what would surely count among the world's smallest sports fan clubs – are the only ones cheering for North Korea. Even the local embassies don't always send people.

Koidl can name the strongest players, analyze their practice formats, evaluate the state of their equipment and also offer his thoughts on the reason they have suddenly been thrust into the spotlight: a plan to have North Korean players join South Korea to form a joint hockey team at the Pyeongchang Olympics, which begin next month.

Koidl, an Austrian who organizes orchestra concerts, is among the few people who can speak knowledgeably about women's hockey in North Korea.

But the joint Olympic team, he said in an interview, "is a nonsense idea."

North Korea's team, for reasons he doesn't entirely understand, has lost a step in recent years. The last time the two teams met, South Korea won 3-0. And then there's the difficulty of quickly bringing together players who don't know each other. "This might get dangerous," he says.

In South Korea, too, the idea has stirred up anger; a petition to cancel the plan had attracted more than 30,000 signatures by Thursday evening. Sarah Murray, the Canadian woman who is coach of the South Korean team, has said that while she likes the toughness of some North Korean players, not one is talented enough to make the top three lines on her team, which has been buttressed by foreign-born players.

After reaching 12th in the International Ice Hockey Federation standings in 2001, the North Korean women's team has steadily fallen and is now ranked 25th.

Koidl has witnessed the decline.

"Their quality has got less and their speed got less and their mood for playing is a little bit slower," he said.

Still, the planned joint Olympic team stands to bring a global audience to players Koidl has spent years watching. He usually travels with two other friends to watch the North Korean team at world championship events.

Women's hockey inside North Korea, he said, is organized into roughly a half-dozen city teams, which meet twice a year in Pyongyang for tournaments. The national squad is drawn from those teams. Its three coaches have remained unchanged in the years he has been watching. Some of its players, too, have remained on the ice over that entire period and are now in their 30s.

He's not sure why, but believes "some players are allowed to take part at the world championships as a reward."

North Korea's players have obvious disadvantages against other teams, he said: They tend to be shorter and smaller, even relative to the South Korean team, although some make up for those discrepancies with speed and "good physical condition."

Their equipment, too, is often worn; top players might travel with two sticks. Third-stringers might carry a single stick to a tournament, their only chance to meet outside competition after North Korea stopped sending women's teams to tournaments outside world championships.

"I think this is really the biggest problem, the lack of international experience," Koidl said.

In North Korea, "the little money they have, I think, is just put into [soccer] and taekwondo."

North Korea counts just 1,090 adult players, three indoor rinks (plus 13 outdoor surfaces) and 38 referees, according to IIHF figures.

That's more players, but fewer indoor rinks, than Brazil.

Athletic selection begins young, said Michael Spavor, a Canadian who has lived in North Korea and is among the few Westerners to have met Kim Jong-un, its current leader.

Last year, Spavor spent time with the country's national ski team, and was told winter-sports competitors are scouted from across the country, a system that echoes what Soviet Russia pioneered. North Korea joined the IIHF in 1963, at a time when Eastern Bloc coaches spread hockey through Soviet-influenced countries.

"Athletes are chosen on physical merit," Spavor said. A good runner might end up being selected for hockey and placed in a special school focused on sports.

"They could be anyone, from some small country village. These athletes are not necessarily from middle-, upper-class families in Pyongyang," he said.

"It's quite an honour. Sports in the DPRK is a huge honour to the country, because you bring national pride."

That's particularly true under Kim, who has opened two new ski resorts and other winter sports facilities as leader.

Nick Bonner, the co-founder of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, has taken hockey teams to North Korea. The idea of a joint hockey team, he said, is a clever way to step past the acrimony of the past two years, as Pyongyang provoked global anger through a series of missile and nuclear tests.

"This is a great way of defusing tension," Bonner said.

Koidl isn't so sure. He believes hockey was chosen in part because an arena is the perfect spot for the 230-person cheer squad North Korea is also sending to the Olympics.

A joint squad also means North Korea won't have to bear the blame if the team does not perform well.

"The good thing is, if they fail it's the fault of the South Koreans," he said.

Because, at least in the country's state media, "North Korea never loses."

The agreement between South and North Korea to march under a unity flag and field a joint ice hockey team at next month's Olympics debuts to sharp criticism by many in the South, highlighting a sea change in South Korean attitudes toward their northern neighbours.


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