What the Global Community Can Learn from Korea’s Olympic Unification

The modern Olympic games were created to bring political enemies together and promote peace and unity within the international community. In the midst of a “my nuclear button is bigger than yours” competition between the President of the United States and the North Korean Supreme Leader, the Unified Korean Women’s Hockey team is exactly the type of “sports diplomacy” the world needs right now.

Republic of Korea / Creative Commons

Less than a month before the 2018 Olympics, the Korean team was thrown a huge curveball: for the first time ever, North and South Korea would compete as a unified team—made up of 23 South Korean and 12 North Korean players—in a sport at the Olympic Games. After more than a millennium of being unified, Korea was arbitrarily divided by U.S and Soviet powers after the fall of the Japanese empire in WWII; since the Korean War ended with a ceasefire and not a treaty, North and South Korea have technically been at war with each other since 1950.

Typically, the big rivalry in ice hockey is between the United States and Canada, who have traded world titles and Olympic medals back and forth since the 1990s. In PyeongChang, that rivalry looks like a love-fest. 8-0 losses in their first two matches against Europeans still felt like victories in this political context, with chants of “we are one,” “cheer up,” and “we are proud of you” in Korean roaring from the stands. Hearing the crowd cheer when an American-born player from Harvard scored Korea’s first and only goal in Olympic play was beautiful. Watching fans from around the world, including the mesmerizing North Korean cheer squad, do “the wave” together and compete for time on the dance cam was an inspiring reminder of our common humanity.

The unification, though, is not without indignation or controversy. When asked why South Korea chose the women’s hockey team, and not the men’s, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon said that the women’s team was ranked lower and thus didn’t have a high chance of bringing home medals, conveniently overlooking that the men’s team has a similarly low likelihood of winning a medal. That’s why Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) wrote a letter, signed by over 2,000 other U.S. supporters, to Coach Murray and the team before their first game. We wanted them to know how proud we are of them and that we refuse to let the diplomatic goodwill inspired by their efforts go to waste because of a blustering Trump administration.

Sports taught me everything I know about being a woman. My desire to recreate Brandi Chastain’s infamous celebration of Team USA’s 1999 World Cup Championship led to the purchase of my first bra. After I saw WNBA player Lisa Leslie become the first woman to slam-dunk on my television, I began to dream about becoming a professional basketball player. (Spoiler Alert: I didn’t.) Sports taught me to forget the word “impossible”—a lesson which ultimately led me to working with incredibly strong women to prevent nuclear war.

Sexism in sports and international affairs—both traditionally understood as being in the domain of men—are holding entire communities back. In both realms, women’s contributions are minimized and overlooked. In both worlds, women are denied equal pay and opportunities. The U.S. Olympic Committee now is reckoning, quite publicly, with the ways in which gender-based violence has impacted the lives of some of the most successful women and girls to compete in sports like gymnastics and swimming. In the face of overwhelming quantitative data showing that in peace and security situations where women’s inclusion is prioritized, peace is more likely, particularly when women are in a position to influence decision making, women are similarly demanding a voice.

When we cut women off from athletic opportunities, we limit their individual development. When we cut them off from foreign policy decisions, we are limiting the world’s chance for peace.

Was the decision to field a combined women’s team and not a men’s team sexist? That may be the wrong question. Think bigger: If sports have the power to subvert traditional gender norms, and the inclusion of women in peace talks leads to more effective solutions, could the Unified Korean Women’s Hockey Team be the diplomatic breakthrough we need to avert nuclear war?

With the direction the U.S. is headed in, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by seizing the opportunity in front of us. At WAND, we’re keeping the momentum for diplomacy going long after the final buzzer sounds.



Kristina Romines is the Field Director of Women’s Action for New Directions. For over three decades, WAND has worked to empower women to be agents of change for nuclear disarmament and champions for diplomacy over war.