A Unified Korea team featuring athletes from North and South Korea yesterday won women’s canoe/kayak sprint bronze for their first medal at the Asian Games.
It was the first time a combined team from North Korea and South Korea won a medal at a major international multi-sport event.
The highly symbolic Unified Korea team, competing together after a rapid improvement in cross-border relations, came in behind China and hosts Indonesia in the women’s 200m race.
The athletes were in tears afterward as they sung Arirang, a traditional Korean folk song, to celebrate winning their medal.
“I was deeply emotional,” South Korean canoeist Eun Jeong-byun said. “We’re divided and forbidden from seeing each other, but we both know the same song and speak the same language.”
“By singing that song, we felt we were one nation — yet, we aren’t able to see each other,” Eun added.
The two Koreas have also joined forces in rowing at the Asian Games, as well as women’s basketball, in which they are second in their group after three wins out of four.
The North Korean athletes hardly knew what dragon boating, a traditional form of canoeing, was until the team came together 20 days ago.
“I was initially worried about there being a barrier between us [coaches],” South Korean coach Yeong Kang-geun said.
“But the North Korean coach told me I could do whatever I wanted and he would cooperate, because he didn’t know much about dragon boating,” Yeong said.
“That happened on the first day, within five minutes, so we became close very quickly,” Yeong added.
At last week’s opening ceremony, the Korean teams marched together behind the Unified Korea flag, held aloft jointly by South Korean women’s basketball player Lim Yung-hui and North Korean soccer player Ju Kyong-chol.
The two Koreas had paraded together and formed a joint women’s ice hockey team at February’s Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, setting the scene for an unprecedented warming of ties.
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