Chae Insooh has warm memories of the cold noodle soup – Pyongyang naengmyeon. Her family slurped on the imitations back home in Samcheonpo – a remote town in South Korea where she grew up, and she attempts to recreate the signature buckwheat soup dish in Indonesia where she has lived, married to a businessman for the last 18 years. She’s pined for the thin, handmade noodles in Jakarta even before the Korean peninsular peace summit made the signature dish famous as South Koreans lined up for the northern speciality. “Oh, we try to make it like that. But the best place to have it is North Korea,” she says with a sigh.
In sport – and in the two Koreas fielding a unified team — the lady in her late 40s with a teenaged son, whiffs prospects of tasting that authentic chilled broth of noodles, cucumbers, radish, cold beef, boiled egg, drizzled with mustard sauce, once more. This is soon after watching what she once thought impossible in her lifetime – a combined team of south and north Koreans, turning out under a combined team list and under a peace flag (white with a blue peninsular map) in women’s basketball.
Three players – centre Ro Suk Yong, forward Jang Mi Gyong and shooting guard Kim Hye Yon – were integral parts of the ‘Corea’ team, drafted from the north of the 38th parallel, which played out a thriller on Friday against Chinese Taipei in a group match of the Asian Games. A delicious aperitif served up on the eve of the Games opening, the Koreans would lose 87-85 in extra-time after catching up from 33-43 down in the second quarter to finish the full period at 73-all. There was potential for rancour. “Many Koreans are happy that we’re fielding combined teams. But some others disagree saying three deserving South Koreans missed out and were ‘sacrificed’,” explains Seoul-based writer Kim Jihan.
Chae waves off these concerns as quibbles. Her grandfather served in the Korean War, and she believes the acrimony ought to end now, never mind one stray loss for the defending champions. “I don’t really care about the results. We will get better anyway in the future. What’s important is we are seen going forward to unify. Every event with a unified Korean team in sport brings us closer to peace,” she says, adding, “We’ve been fighting for so long.” Cheering and chantings
Donning white cheering gear with ‘One Dream, One Corea’ penned in baby blue, a bunch has travelled from Pyongyang with their clappers and chants of ‘Himnera!’ (Cheer Up) and a beseeching “igyeora!!” (Win!). Koreans from the south who’ve made a living in Jakarta are readily added to the bulging, bustling wave of fans – handed out tees, and given the inflates to create one right din.
“There are people we’ve known from before the war – some defected, some were captured and taken to the north. My parents had high school friends who disappeared,” Chae recalls, fisting her heart repeatedly, to convey her desperation for the reconciliation process to succeed. “I’ve been in Indonesia for long now. But ever since the first attempt was made to bring peace, it’s like pockets of Koreans everywhere in the world suddenly found a glow in their heart,” she explains. Sport has been a laboratory almost, to test how successfully a joint future could work out. Fans are delirious an effort is simply underway.
The title holders from Incheon have struggled to link up in their defence – but it took some draining effort for women’s basketball-crazy Chinese Taipei to nick this win. It took some big outside shooting, and relentless hustling by the Taipese right until the buzzer to stave off the Koreans.
Chinese Taipei’s American coach Albert Wagner had trained his team of shorter, speedier zig-zaggers to cut down on the turnovers (21 per cent to 40 per cent of Korea). He plotted to stop the US-born Kim Hanbyul – a well-built all-rounder and the American-coached team handed the defending champions a close loss that underlined his side’s ability to enforce a full-press with aggressive defending and a swamping style of passing and shooting. His team’s only bonafide ‘tall player’ – Bao Hsile at 6’5”, has been struggling with a bad back and it was left to the smalls to scurry around and notch the win, much to the disappointment of the 200-odd travelling and expat Korean fans. But he wasn’t completely unaware of his team’s bit-part in the history-making match against the ‘unified team.’ “It’s good to have the combined team as part of the Asian Games. (They were together at the Winter Games). I think I’m happy to contribute (even as an opponent), to the Korean peninsular team and the steps they are taking,” Wagner would add.
It even gave the American a few ideas. Asked what he thought of the opponents of the day, Wagner would say, “The ones that came as the Korean team have been good, tough. Maybe we (Chinese Taipei) should also combine and join together. We need a few tall players!” he would guffaw, watching the Chinese national team brimming with its four towers upwards of 6’3” bending their heads to pass through the doors of the makeshift stadium. Korea have attempted the combined teams in three sports – rowing, dragonboat and women’s basketball – as a pilot. But as Chae Insooh, the Korean lady, would remind him, “You don’t understand. What we are seeing at Asian Games goes beyond sport.”