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Politics, ping pong, and Pyongyang

SEOUL – Table tennis players from North and South Korea play together in an international tournament Tuesday in the latest instalment of Korean sporting diplomacy.

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The sport has long had an unusual impact in foreign affairs, most notably in the “ping-pong diplomacy” of the 1970s between China and the US.

And sports have also had a role in the current rapprochement on the Korean peninsula, which was catalysed by the Winter Olympics in the South.

The two Koreas marched together behind a unification flag at the Games’ opening ceremony and formed a sometimes controversial unified women’s ice hockey team, while the host’s President Moon Jae-in seized the opportunity to broker talks between Pyongyang and Washington.

Three months later North and South Korea’s women table tennis players combined into a united team rather than play each other in the world team championships quarter-final, although they went on to lose their semi-final and had to settle for bronze.

Now, after a historic summit in Singapore, last month between Kim and US President Donald Trump, 16 North Korean players are taking part in the ITTF Korea Open tournament in Daejeon.

Four — including the North’s 2016 Olympic women’s singles bronze medallist Kim Song I — will join a Southern counterpart in the doubles, with the first two mixed pairs going into action on Tuesday.

READ: North Korea’s Kim hails ‘unity’ with China

The first time table tennis players from the two neighbours formed a joint team was for the world championships back in 1991, during an earlier period of rapprochement on the divided peninsula, when they shocked China to win the women’s team gold.

“Table tennis has had a long history as a driver of peace, and we are happy to open a new chapter of table tennis diplomacy to promote peace on the Korean peninsula,” said Thomas Weikert, the head of International Table Tennis Federation.

‘Beyond symbolism’

During periods of warmer ties between the two Koreas — which technically remain in conflict after the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice instead of a peace treaty — have regularly sought to use sports as a symbol of reconciliation.

“Sports is the easiest and least controversial link the two Koreas can share, and there is little political burden in sports-related cooperation,” said Lee Chang-seop, professor of physical education at Chungnam National University.

Past joint sports events had provided rare points of contact helping South Koreans feel that “North Koreans are humans, too”, he told AFP.

Many joint teams have been hailed more for their symbolism than their performance — the Winter Olympics women’s ice hockey team lost all five of their matches, outscored by a total of 36 to 2.

But the prospects for table tennis may be rosier — South Korea is a power in the sport, with 18 Olympics medals to its name, second only to China.

The 1991 team’s month-long drama — from their first meeting to the victory over the nine-time world champions — was made into a 2012 movie, “As One”, seen by nearly two million people in South, which has a population of around 50 million.

“We have convened the best players from both sides,” said Kim Taek-soo, who coaches the South’s men’s team.

“So we will try to achieve something beyond symbolism and to make it to the semifinal at least,” he told reporters. 

AFP

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