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Olympics Joint Korean women's hockey team falls to Sweden in first practice match

Athletes listen to Arirang, instead of the National Anthem of South Korea during the Women's Ice Hockey friendly match at Seonhak International Ice Rink on February 4, 2018 in Incheon, South Korea. The friendly match was held ahead of the Olympic Games where South and North Korea competes for the first time as a unified team in a sport at the Olympic Games.

Woohae Cho/Getty Images

There was a hockey game to be played, but the battle started hours earlier in the cold outside the arena where the Korean Olympic women's squad was preparing for its first game as a unified team. Crowds danced in celebration on one side of a road while on the other protesters punched, ripped and stomped images of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Those cheering the combined women's team, with both North and South Korean players, are "traitors," said Choi Do-sang, a retired civil servant among the flag-waving protesters. "The Olympics are just buying time for the North Koreans to work on their nuclear program," he said, as a man with a megaphone screamed slurs at Kim Jong-un, calling him a "killer" and "dog refuse."

These are not Peace Olympics, spat Lee Youn-ju, an artist who joined the ear-splitting protest. "This is completely fake peace." North Korea has "a nuclear bomb, do you think that's for making peace?" She held a sign with charts showing public opposition to the joint team.

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But any sign of disharmony was wiped away by the time the Korean players took to the ice for a warm-up match against Sweden, which Korea lost 3-1. Police blocked protesters from entering. Progressive groups aligned with the government, meanwhile, brought in so many people that they used maps to arrange people throughout the arena.

The result was a raucous display of support, as fans waved the unification flag – a blue map of the Korean peninsula on a white background – that will be used by athletes from the two countries in their joint entrance at the opening ceremony. Other patriotic signs declared "One Korea Yes!" and "Fighting! To the Korea ice hockey team that will leave its mark in history!"

The crowd, meanwhile, chanted "Korea! We are one!" and then, as the score began to stack up in Sweden's favour, "It's okay!" and "Win, Korea! Win!" – all using the foreign word "Korea" instead of Dae-han-min-guk, the word typically used to cheer on South Korean teams.

Rather than a national anthem, spectators sang Arirang, a mournful folk song about lovers split apart that has taken on larger symbolic resonance.

"Our country has been divided for so long," said Cho Ji-hoon, a lawyer, as he watched the game. "So we're actually seeing this example of us becoming one. It's like watching a small reunification."

Like many, it was his first time at a hockey game.

"Maybe 10 per cent of the people here have watched a game," said Baek Seung-su, who belongs to a peace-oriented organization.

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He nonetheless liked what he saw – even if the Korean team showed signs of having been cobbled together by politicians at the last minute, occasionally creating long delays as they determined who to send out for a faceoff. The crowd's exuberance, too, was directed largely at the Korean goaltender, erupting in cheers with every save as better-organized Sweden kept pressure in the Korean end. Sweden ended the game with 35 shots on goal to Korea's 14.

For team Korea, however, the 3-1 performance was better than expected, and the North Korean side emerged from the game optimistic.

"If the North and South can combine their strength and work as one, we can achieve anything," said Park Cheol-ho, an assistant coach from North Korea, which dressed four players for the game, although only three skated.

"I believe that this competition will show the power we as North and South can achieve," said Jong Su-hyon, a North Korean forward who defied expectations and made the team's second line.

"Even though she doesn't speak the same language as our players, she reads off them really well," said Sarah Murray, the Canadian woman who is coaching the Korean women's team.

Indeed, the language difference underscored how this exercise in unity has also accentuated divisions. The northern and southern players employ such different vocabulary that "for our team meetings, it's going through English to South Korean to North Korean, so the meetings take three times as long – and it's really hard when you have three different languages on one team," Murray said.

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At the Olympics, too, North Korea's desire to monitor and control its people means the team will not stay together; the northern players will be with other North Korean athletes in a separate building.

"In an ideal world, yes, we would be in the same building and we would stay together. Because we need to do team meetings, we need to be together. We're one team. But unfortunately, it didn't work out that way so we're just going to deal with it," Murray said.

Still, she said, "the North Korean players have learned quickly. They've been great to work with, they work really hard. So we've just been reviewing our systems and we'll keep teaching and keep getting better."

For many in the crowd, just seeing players in the same jerseys was all that mattered – a sight that brought Lee Byounng-ho, a teacher, to tears.

"They all have the same grandparents, and now they have become one body," Lee said.

"It doesn't matter whether they win or lose. What's important is the fact that they came together as one on the ice. That might provide an opportunity for the country to come together."

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With reporting by Cynthia Yoo

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