The joint team also poses something of a diplomatic quagmire. In return for their peaceful participation, North Korea may demand something from South Korea in return—cash, or the resumption of profitable economic cooperation programs shut down in response to its missile tests. Such deal-making “could give the impression that South Korea is deviating from its campaign of pressure and sanctions on North Korea,” Kim Sung Han, a former senior South Korean diplomat in the conservative Lee Myung Bak administration, told me. An atmosphere of reconciliation could undermine the U.S.-South Korea alliance by making Washington “jealous,” which might then give North Korea greater leverage for its ultimate aim: formal recognition as a nuclear power.
All in all, the joint team could put South Korea on precarious political footing. While sports can act as a diplomatic catalyst, “they cannot alter the fundamental political calculus,” Kim Sung Han, the former senior South Korean diplomat, said. “The best-case scenario would be this leading to high-level summit talks ... multilateral dialogue for the denuclearization of North Korea. But I’m pessimistic.” Kim and others in the diplomatic community believe that Pyongyang would try to use this opportunity to coax concessions out of Seoul, or to pressure the United States and South Korea to stall or cancel their upcoming joint military exercises.
For the South Korean team, the proposal came as an infuriating shock. “They’re all thinking, ‘these politicians are trying to make history while they’re in office, but why do they have to try to make history with this?’” former women’s national ice hockey player Hwangbo Young told me. A former North Korean women’s national ice hockey team player who defected to the South in 1999, Hwangbo later represented South Korea at the 2003 Winter Asian Games in Japan, where she was shunned by her former teammates. “The South Korean players won’t be feeling very accepting of the North Korean players,” Hwangbo said. “This is going to backfire horribly.”
Why did South Korea choose women’s hockey for its Olympics experiment? The obvious reason is that the skill gap between the women’s ice hockey teams is relatively small—South Korea and North Korea are ranked 22nd and 25th, respectively. Neither is in serious medal contention. After taking flak for voicing this opinion publicly, South Korea Prime Minister Lee Nak Yeon issued an apology. “It’s because they don’t take women’s ice hockey seriously,” Hwangbo said.
The plan is as beleaguered as it is ambitious. The joint team will have less than a month to train together. Adding North Korean players to the roster could complicate the usual offensive lineup and defensive rotations, not to mention the individual players’ ability to sync up with one another. “[Building teamwork] is not going to be easy,” Lim Jin Young, a former player who retired from the women’s national ice hockey team late last year, told me. “With the expanded roster, there could also be a situation where some of the South Korean players will be unable to even put on their uniforms,” she added. Although the joint team roster was set at 35 players to accommodate the North Koreans, the team will still only be able to play 23 players in each match, opening up the possibility that some might be unable to even suit up for some of the games.