Why you should care
Because sports unified Korea as politics never has.
The Chinese women’s team had swept eight consecutive titles at the biannual world table tennis championships, racking up a string of victories from 1975 to 1989. Led by 4-foot-11 Deng Yaping — aka the “Ping-Pong Witch” — they looked on track to bag a ninth gold medal at the 1991 tournament, held at Chiba, Japan, southeast of Tokyo. All that stood in their way was a team made up of players from two separate countries that were technically at war with each other — North and South Korea.
After Korea and China split two sets, the final game of the event turned into a marathon. After 3 hours, 40 minutes of up-tempo, seesawing action, the score was locked at 18-18. China’s Gao Jun, who went on to win a silver medal in doubles at the 1992 Summer Olympics, had the advantage of serving the last few crucial points. Even better, Gao was serving to a sub — North Korean Yu Sun-bok, who had been called up when her compatriot Ri Bun-hee contracted hepatitis.
We achieved a small reunification for 46 days.
Lee Yu-sung, South Korean table tennis coach
When Yu pulled her backhand wide, it left Korea trailing 18-19. In a remarkable turnaround, on the next point she smashed the ball five times in a row, eventually forcing Gao into a timid backhand that hit the net. The game was knotted at 19-19. On match point Gao overplayed an ambitious crosscourt forehand, and the trophy went to an ecstatic Korean squad. “Yu played like a machine,” the South Korean coach Lee Yu-sung told reporters.
Korea was a culturally unified kingdom for a millennium until the Cold War partitioned the peninsula into communist North and capitalist South. After the cease-fire of 1953 following the Korean War, it took 46 years and a sport that originated in Victorian England to get the two sides to cooperate on anything. And even then it wasn’t easy.
Five months and 22 rounds of discussions were needed to finalize the Ping-Pong treaty of Feb. 21, 1991, just two months before the tournament. A northerner was in charge of the team of 28 South Korean and 28 North Korean players, coaches and officials. The more populous and prosperous South conceded in other ways as well, as northerners were tapped to produce new unified flags and national uniforms while the southerners prepared training gear and sheet music for a folk song that would stand in for a national anthem.
Initially, the 21-year-old South Korean star Hyun Jung-hwa did not welcome the merger. She had won a gold medal in doubles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and another gold at the 1990 Asian Games with her South Korean partner, and had to adjust her playing style to accommodate the 22-year-old Ri. “Because I was younger, I deferred to her [Ri] as an older sister,” Hyun says. “We were curious about each other.” She adds that there wasn’t much of a cultural and linguistic gap between them, other than in technical table tennis terms. The South used English loanwords, and the North used Korean words.
The unified squad was formidable. At the time, the South Koreans were ranked second in the world; the North Koreans, fifth. Together they crushed the opposition in Japan in the early rounds, cruising through 10 matches to reach the finals. Carrying the team was the right-handed Hyun, renowned for swift footwork and a powerful forehand, and the left-handed Ri, who excelled at serves and the backhand until illness felled her prior to the finals.
At the medals ceremony after the Korean upset, a new flag was raised, one that showed the Korean Peninsula in blue against a white background, as the folk song “Arirang” played. “Time stopped on April 29, 1991,” coach Lee told a Korean newspaper about that triumphant day. “We achieved a small reunification for 46 days,” he said, referring to the period his team spent training and competing in Japan.
Team members knew it would be difficult to maintain the goodwill vibe, given that Seoul and Pyongyang prohibited cross-border visits, phone calls and correspondence. Hyun took off her gold ring as a gift to Ri. “We can’t say, ‘I’ll call,’” says Hyun, “or ‘I’ll send a letter.’ What kind of farewell is this?” Nevertheless, South Korean coach Lee and North Korean coach Cho Nam-poong vowed to be brothers.
After the tournament, the Korean champions were scheduled to parade together in the two capitals. But Pyongyang scratched the victory lap to protest the actions of the South Korean police, who clubbed a student dissident to death in Seoul three days before the unified team’s victory in Tokyo.
In 2012, conservative South Korean president Lee Myung-bak went so far as to decline Hyun’s request for a reunion with Ri when the two athletes competed in a table tennis tournament in Beijing. Five years later, progressive president Moon Jae-in proposed a united Korean team for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. North Korean Olympic representative Chang Ung snubbed the offer, stating, “The Olympics should not be used for a political aim.”
Between 2000 and 2006, though, the two Koreas marched together in the opening ceremonies of three Olympics under the Korean unification flag. Two North Korean figure skaters have qualified for next year’s Winter Olympics, and many hope that Pyongyang will not boycott the games as it did the 1988 Seoul Olympics. As politicians in Washington and Pyongyang ping-pong rhetorical fusillades and indulge in an existential game of chicken, perhaps sports diplomacy led by someone other than Dennis Rodman could help cool hot heads and deliver at least a modicum of the cooperation and compromise that led to 1991’s glorious Korean table tennis victory.