With the 2012 London Olympics currently in progress, I thought I’d write about sports. Just in time for the international event, a movie was released this past May simply titled As One. It is based on the true story of Korea’s first unified sports team since the division, an event that brought patriotism and hope to the entire Korean Peninsula.
In February 1991, North and South Korean officials met at Panmunjum at the North-South border to make agreements on forming a unified soccer and table tennis team. Everything was decided on at this meeting. The flag was to be the unification flag, a blue Korean peninsula on a white background, and the anthem was to be the famous Korean folk song Arirang. And in April that same year, both the North and South Korean table tennis teams left for Japan to participate in the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships as the first ever unified Korean team since the division of the peninsula. History was in the making.
From the get-go the two teams were different. Their lifestyles, the way they trained, even the way they spoke was different. These two teams had been thrown together at the last minute just two months before the Championships and were expected to get along and maybe even win a few games. It was bound to be a rocky road.
Not only did the athletes have to overcome their differences, they also had to face the animosity they had for each other. These young athletes had grown up their whole lives being told that the other side was the evil enemy. And now all of a sudden here they were, playing on the same team. Learning to play together meant more than just learning each others playing styles and tactics; it meant learning how to build a relationship despite everything. And it seemed impossible.
But like I said in a previous article, people are surprisingly similar wherever you go. And when put in a challenging situation, people tend to come together.
The North’s Li Bun Hee and the South’s Hyun Jung Hwa were the team’s star players. In a telephone interview with The Associated Press (AP), Hyun recalled her dismay when she learned she would be playing doubles with Li, whom she considered a notch lower in skill: “I was too young to understand how symbolic it was,” she said. The two women were extremely competitive and at first considered each other rivals instead of teammates. However, Hyun explains that when Li fell ill with hepatitis, her feelings changed. “My heart ached,” Hyun said. “Aside from the rivalry between us and between our countries, I started hoping Li would get better and do well for her country.”
Through the differences, the athletic rivalry, and the politics a friendship was born between the teammates of the Korean team. “For 46 days, 24 hours a day, we lived together as one, trained together, slept in the same room and ate all our meals together,” Li told AP at an interview in Pyongyang. “We shared the same food — and our feelings. We speak the same language,” Li said. “We’re the same people. We’re Korean. We all had the same goal: To win.”
And win they did. Together the team eventually took home the gold, taking it from the world’s strongest table tennis team at the time, China. But the fact that Li and Hyun’s homes will forever prevent them from meeting again is what brings tears to the audiences’ eyes. As the two teams say their goodbyes in the movie, Hyun says these lines, bringing everyone in the audience to choke on their tears: “What kind of farewell is this? I can’t say that I’ll call. I can’t say that I’ll write. I can’t even say that we’ll meet again someday. What am I supposed to say?”
In the movie, as a token of their friendship, Hyun hands Li a ring through the window of the departing bus. And after 21 years, Li still cherishes that same ring to this day. “I miss her very much,” said Li, her eyes filled with tears.
We can learn a lot from this movie. There are many people out there that oppose unification on grounds that the differences between the two countries have become too great to overcome. However, just like the Korean saying, blood is thicker than water. Korea is one nation and no amount of cultural differences or politics will ever be stronger than that. Unification is inevitable. But more importantly, contrary to what many believe, it will work out.
Below are actual photos of Li Bun Hee, Hyun Jung Hwa, and the rest of the team at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships.