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Unification flag harks back to friendlier times

Jan 22,2018
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[YONHAP]
For the first time in 11 years, North and South Korea will march as one in the opening ceremony for the Olympics under the Korean Unification Flag. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) announced Saturday that one female and one male athlete will be chosen to represent the two nations and will wear a special uniform with the Korean Unification Flag, which has an image of the Korean peninsula. The last time the two Koreas walked in as one was in the 2007 Asian Winter Games in China.

Though they will walk under one flag, there may still be tension between the North and South Korean flagbearers at the event to be held on Feb. 9, based on previous accounts.

“I was instructed to place my hand higher on the flagpole (than the North Korean flagbearer),” recalled former women’s basketball player Chung Eun-soon who held the unification flag with North Korea’s judo coach Park Jung-chul at the opening ceremony for the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics.

“But coach Park also tried to reach higher on the flagpole. I thought to myself, ‘I guess I’m not the only one who received orders to do that,’ and wondered why the authorities were creating this conflict between us.”

Chung eventually placed her hand higher than Park, who is 1.78 meters tall, because she was taller at 1.85 meters.

She also mentioned that she blamed herself for the women’s basketball team’s loss against Poland the day after the opening.

“I was told that I was chosen as the flagbearer during practice, after I arrived in Sydney,” said Chung. “I told them I couldn’t do it because our team was up against Poland in the preliminaries the next day, but the coach told me to accept it as it was ‘an honor,’ so I changed my mind.”

South Korea lost 62-77 to Poland, and Chung said she felt like the team lost because she was inconveniencing them. Being chosen as flagbearer came too abruptly and messed with her mental condition for the game.

Former Olympics volleyball player Choi Tae-woong, who is the current coach for the Cheonan Hyundai Capital Skywalkers, also shared his experience as a flagbearer under the unification flag during the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu.

“We were both holding the flag together at the opening ceremony,” recounted Choi, who was partnered with North Korean fencer Kim Hye-young for the task. “But as soon as the North Korean cheering squad began clapping, she ran to them to shake their hands. It was such a confusing moment.”

At the time, the North sent a 303-member cheering squad to the event.

Choi recalled that he “awkwardly” walked alone with the heavy flag throughout the ceremony. Still, the coach said he was grateful that the North Korean cheering team enthusiastically cheered on the South Korean team during one of their volleyball games.

Under former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who had relatively favorable policies towards the North, the two Koreas marched as one in several sports events: the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics, 2002 Asian Games in Busan, 2003 Aomori Asian Games, 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu, 2004 Athens Summer Olympics, 2005 East Asian Games, 2005 Asian Athletics Games in Incheon, 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, 2006 Doha Summer Asian Games and lastly in the 2007 Changchun Winter Asian Games.

After the Lee Myung-bak administration came to office in 2008 and the Park Geun-hye administration in 2013, which both had tougher policies against the North, the two countries stopped entering together at sporting events. Now under President Moon Jae-in, the two Koreas will enter together once again for the Olympics opening ceremony.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the South sent a female athlete from the basketball team, while the North sent a male coach for the North’s judo team. At the last event in 2007 in China, South Korea sent an alpine skier from the women’s team, whereas the North sent an ice hockey athlete from the men’s team.

Based on this pattern, it is likely that the South will send a male athlete and the North will send a female athlete to represent Korea for the upcoming ceremony on Feb. 9. From the South, forward Park Woo-sang from the men’s ice hockey team and rising snowboard star Lee Sang-ho have been mentioned as possible flagbearers, while from the North, figure skater Ryom Tae-ok or an athlete from the women’s ice hockey team are possible candidates.

The unification flag will make another appearance during the Women’s Ice Hockey game, as the IOC approved the creation of a unified team for the first time in Olympics history. However, as the nations will not be competing as one in other sports, they will use their individual flags during those medal ceremonies.

Chung, who is now a member of the KBS N Sports basketball league, expressed her warm regards for the joint entrance saying she believes it will be another “historic moment”

But some people oppose the IOC’s decision.

According to South Korean research institute Realmeter, 49.9 percent out of 500 adults responded in a poll that North and South Korea should hold their own individual flags during the opening ceremony, whereas 40.5 percent approved of the unification flag. The rest responded that they either did not know or that there should be another option. The poll was gathered last Wednesday.

On the other hand, Chung also said she felt sorry for the women’s ice hockey team because some members will not have a chance to play any matches in what could be their first and last Olympics, with the IOC’s recent approval of a unified team.

Some members of the women’s ice hockey team took to Instagram to voice their opinion.

“To an athlete a minute, a second of being able to play is so precious,” said Lee Min-ji, a forward in the South Korean women’s ice hockey team. “So I don’t get how people don’t understand that sacrificing several minutes [of game time] is depriving [us of] opportunities. There are even some players who might not be able to sit on the bench, so how can you tell us to accept this news happily?”

In the meantime, the IOC also welcomed the cultural, sporting and other initiatives proposed by the two governments, but announced that they will not be considered part of the Olympic Games. Cheering squads from both sides will be able to use the unification flag when cheering.

BY KIM HYO-KYUNG, PARK RIN AND CHAE HYE-SEON [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]