SEOUL (Reuters) - Hwangbo Young, a North Korean ice hockey player who defected to South Korea in 1997, says the first time she played in the South “it felt like a joke”.
The player, now a 40-year-old teacher, was not referring to the calibre of players, but to the relatively comfortable conditions they trained in.
Next week in Pyeongchang, for the first time in an Olympics, the North and South are to field a combined women’s ice hockey team as part of a unity effort engineered by South Korean government officials.
It will force coaches and players to overcome wide differences, from training and tactics to diet and motivation.
“In North Korea, training itself is very tough,” Hwangbo told Reuters, standing at an indoor ice rink in Seoul where she was teaching a group of junior high school girls. She was 12 years old when she first started playing the sport.
“There wasn’t an ice rink, so we could play only in winter. We set up a fence around a sports ground and made ice to play there.”
Twenty-two North Korean athletes are in South Korea to compete in the Feb. 9-25 Games in Pyeongchang.
Only a pair of figure skaters officially qualified, while the rest were approved by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) under rules often used to provide opportunities for underdog countries.
The North Koreans are staying at the athletes’ village, though sanctions are complicating the welcome they receive, making it uncertain if they can enjoy the same perks bestowed upon other athletes.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a basketball fan, has boosted spending on sports as part of his ambition to transform the North into a “sports power”, but observers do not expect that to translate into gold at these Winter Games.
North Koreans have won only two medals in the Winter Olympics, both for speed skating, and both in the early 1990s.
“North Korea is a cold region with a lot of snow, and therefore many ordinary people enjoy diverse winter sports,” said Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
“But athletes do not get a chance to be trained at a world level and there are really few examples of actual achievements.”
Six years after Hwangbo and her family defected, she was a member of South Korea’s first national women’s ice hockey team when it competed in the 2003 Asian Winter Games in Japan.
At the time, she looked forward to seeing old friends on the North Korea team. “I tried to talk to them but they called me ‘a traitor who betrayed your home country’,” Hwangbo said.
Now, she is sceptical as South Korea prepares to compete with 12 North Korean players, saying the standard of ice hockey in the North had slipped.
“They couldn’t catch up with new trends and are still playing in an old style. They’re lacking a lot,” Hwangbo said.
The team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, voiced concerns over the politically driven combination, but has since said she would work to make sure they develop a “shared mission”.
“I think the North Korean players that will be added to our team, they want to win too,” she told reporters last week.
Other North Korean athletes who defected tell a similar story. As a young boxer in North Korea, Choi Hyun-mi, 29, says she often faced brutal training regimes after she was drafted into a training programme at the age of 11.
She was one of 20 young boxers hoping to represent North Korea at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In the early mornings, people were so keen to run further than their team mates, she said, they would sneak out of the dormitories ahead of the pack. “If any rustling sound was heard, then all 20 of us would wake up and get out to run.”
“Everything was competition,” Choi said. “We took showers after running, but the last one who left a shower room had to clean up. Eating was a competition too. Food was limited. It was on a first-come, first-served basis. The one who came early ate more than the one who came late.”
North Korean athletes have done better in the Summer Olympics, with 54 medals, including seven at Rio in 2016, their best overall showing since 1992.
Like Hwangbo, Choi defected to South Korea before she could get a chance to compete at the highest level for the North.
Defectors said it was a myth that North Korean athletes had been threatened with death for losing, but they risked censure if they failed to perform well against politically sensitive rivals such as South Korea, Japan and the United States.
Reporting By Jane Chung; Additional reporting by Haejin Choi; Writing by Josh Smith; Editing by Sara Ledwith and Mark Bendeich