By Ian Ransom
HANGZHOU, China (Reuters) – Having played in a unified team at the Asian Games in Jakarta five years ago, North and South Korea’s women basketballers battled each other in Hangzhou on Friday in a full-blooded contest that the South won 81-62.
In 2018, North Korea contributed three players to the 12-member roster coached by South Korean Lee Moon-Kyoo: Ro Suk-Yong, Kim Hye-yon and Jang Mi-gyong.
They won a silver medal, losing 71-65 to China in the final.
On Friday, at China’s Asian Games, a number of the roster returned, split on opposing sides for the Group C match at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Centre Gymnasium.
Ro captained North Korea and guard Kim started on the bench, while South Korea had forward Kang Lee-seul, guard Park Ji-hyun and centre Park Ji-su among the 2018 alumni.
With South Korea and North Korea still technically at war, there has been diplomatic tension at the Games.
North Korean athletes refused to join South Korean rivals for a group photo of medal winners at the shooting competition.
With that backdrop, South Korea’s coach Jung Sun-min warned her players not to respond too aggressively if the game got physical.
It did at times, with North Korea’s 6ft-8in Pak Ji-na laying some bruising hits on her opponents.
“We also predicted this tense game in the locker room,” Jung told reporters.
“I reminded our players … definitely there will be some inevitable physical contact.
“However, we shall not over-react.
“And this shall not affect the competition, we will control ourselves.
“We were fully prepared for it. If they are strong, we will be stronger.”
North Korea had a cheer-squad numbering a few dozen people high up in the grandstand of the half-full stadium.
Wearing identical white T-shirts and baseball caps, they chanted throughout and cheered madly every time a South Korean was off target.
Yet with China a long-standing ally of North Korea, there was plenty of local support in the crowd.
South Korea trailed at the first quarter but big centre Park took command to drive them to a 33-25 lead at halftime and extend the lead to 20 points after the third quarter.
Unified Korean teams have played at several international events, in ice hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and also canoeing and rowing at the Jakarta Asian Games.
Further opportunities for sporting tie-ups have proved difficult, with North Korea not competing at any major multi-sport event since the 2018 Asian Games due to a combination of COVID-19 and suspension by Olympic authorities.
Whether North Korea’s basketball team would be open to another tie-up in future was not something their coach Jong Song-sim could answer during the post-match press conference.
A North Korea team official sitting beside Jong, who was an assistant coach of the unified team in 2018, said the question was not relevant.
A South Korean reporter who asked whether the North Korean team had enjoyed the local food and the support of local crowds at the Games was upbraided by the same official, who took exception that the reporter had not referred to the nation as “DPRK” (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) — as per Asian Games protocol.
“You should apologise,” the official snapped at the reporter, the question left unanswered.
South Korea’s Park said she was happy to see her former North Korean team mates five years on from Jakarta but suggested the emotion of the moment may have affected her.
“I actually didn’t give my best performance,” she told reporters.
“After five years, I finally see my opponent, I thought I would be pretty happy but I didn’t get any chance to talk to them.”
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Christian Radnedge)