Stockholm (AFP) – Having taken another step towards the sporting rapprochement of North and South Korea, the unified Korean women’s table tennis team was soundly beaten by Japan at the world championships in Sweden on Friday.
The two Koreas on Thursday opted against playing each other, deciding instead to field a joint women’s team for the semi-finals.
When the action got under way in Halmstad on Friday, South Korean player Jeon Jihee lost in three sets, 11-2, 11-8, 11-9, to Japan’s Mima Ito in the first match.
Kim Song I, of North Korea, fared better in the second match but went down 11-4, 6-11, 11-8, 11-13, 16-14 to Japan’s strongest player, Kasumi Ishikawa.
In the final match, Japan’s Miu Hirano dispensed with South Korea’s Yang Haeun 11-4, 11-5, 9-11, 11-6.
“Playing against the combined team, (they) were very strong but I really wanted to give the best,” Hirano said.
Despite the defeat, the combined Korean team were all smiles as they were applauded off court by the spectators and the respective ambassadors of the two countries.
Matthew Pound, the head of media for the International Table Tennis Federation, told AFP the match had been “more than a game”.
The decision for the two Koreas to join forces followed the peace deal forged last week when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visited the south for a summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“Two days ago both teams pitched this idea, they did not want to be competing against each other, it did not feel right especially after the peace deal last week,” Pound said.
“They were passionate… to show the special bonds between the two countries. We considered all the rules and regulations but we thought it was a good decision. Everyone was positive to the idea.”
Some critics pointed out however that another country could have been admitted to the tournament if the Koreas had decided before the event to form a united team instead of waiting until it was underway.
But Petra Sorling, the head of the Swedish table tennis federation, said the political situation “had taken precedence” and the decision to form a unified team had received widespread support from the other nations involved.
The table tennis team is the latest sporting proof of the thaw in relations between the two rival Koreas that began at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February when they marched together at the opening ceremony and fielded a joint women’s hockey team.
There will be no unified team for the men because North Korea did not qualify for this year’s world championships.
North and South Korea formed a joint table tennis team once before, at the world championships in Chiba, Japan, in 1991, when they won the women’s team title.