THE WORLD Team Table Tennis Championships was set to get its first big clash: a women’s quarterfinal tie between DPR Korea and Korea Republic — North and South. Traditionally, the politically volatile clash between the two nations, in any sport, can turn into a feisty affair. And Table 2 at the Halmstad Arena in Sweden was ready to field the latest tie.
Instead, what took place was a tie-up. The two teams decided to come together and compete as Unified Korea. “It definitely caught everyone here by surprise,” says G Sathiyan, India’s highest ranked men’s player who is also competing at the tournament. “The ITTF was quick to accept the proposal because this was the sport’s chance to help make a difference to the social relations between the two countries.” As unusual as it may be for two competing teams to unite under one banner, this wasn’t the first time table tennis had seen a unified Korean team compete. At the 1991 World Championships in Japan’s Chiba, North and South combined to win the women’s team title.
But this time, coming days after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s historic crossover to the South, the moment in Halmstad was extra special. In the sporting realm, the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February will be remembered for being the first time both North and South marched under the Unified Flag during the opening ceremony of major event —that too, within the Korean peninsula. The two countries even combined to field a joint women’s ice hockey team.
In line with political events
The Games served as a precursor to what unfolded last week as Kim and South Korea’s President Moon Jae In held talks in the Demilitarized Zone. The summit resulted in the creation of the Panmunjom Declaration, which promotes the denuclearisation of the peninsula, and importantly, will formally end the 68-year Korean War within months. At Halmstad though, the decision to unify was made ahead of the quarterfinal tie. “It was proposed when the two teams knew they must play each other,” says Ian Marshall, Publications Editor of the ITTF. “It is in line with the recent political events and the 2018 Winter Olympics.” The Unified Korea team will play Japan in the semifinal, but with the benefit of fielding the best of both North and South Korea, the team now becomes a prominent contender. “They’re certainly stronger,” asserts Marshall. “My view is that they are behind China and Japan but ahead of all others. Hong Kong is close though.”
The Indian team, too, is a part of the competition, but the women’s team fell to a lower division after finishing last in the group stages. None of Korea’s prospective opponents though, Japan, China, Hong Kong and Romania have put forward any objections. “On a social front, everyone is very happy about what is happening,” says Sathiyan, the world no 46. “Something like this is happening for the first time in 27 years. And it also raises the profile of the sport. So it’s good.”
There have been faint concerns raised by players, regarding the rules. “All barriers and rules were broken to let this happen,” Sathiyan says. But the social context has been given more weightage. “If two countries at war are getting a chance to be at peace, then why should anyone stop them. Some things are bigger than sport,” he says. “When I informed the board of directors about this development, the unified team received a standing ovation from the delegates who showed their sign of support to this historic move,” ITTF president Thomas Weikert said. Like, Thomas Weikert, Ju Jong Chol. President of the Table Tennis Association of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, welcomed the decision. “This is the result of the strong support provided by the ITTF and IOC. We will do our best to get more successful results internationally in a joint effort between North and South Korea,” Ju Jong Chol said.
According to the ITTF website, it is the first that Korea will have played as a unified team since the 1991 World Championships in Chiba when Hong Cha Ok, Hyun Junghwa, Li Bun Hui and Yu Sun Bok combined to win the Women’s Team title; the silver medallists being China who selected from Chen Zihe, Deng Yaping, Gao Jun and Qiao Hong. It is an event An Jaehyun, the coach of the Korea Republic Team remembers. “I’m very emotional, it is the first time since Chiba, I feel I am in Chiba. The agreement to unify underlines the power of table tennis.” An Jaehyun was quoted as saying by the ITTF website. Later in 2012 directed by Moon Hyunsung, the celebrated event was produced as film named “As One”.