Unified Korea's fairytale goes off script ahead of India clash

Jonathan Selvaraj in Jakarta5 Minute Read
Taiwan's Huang Yingli (L) tries to push the ball past Unified Korea's Keng Leeseul (C) in the women's basketball preliminary group A match between Taiwan and Unified Korea during the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta on August 17, 2018.LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

The mood in the basketball stadium at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Jakarta seemed to deflate at the end of the extra-time buzzer. The scoreline read 85-83 to the Chinese Taipei women's team over the Unified Korean team in what was the second preliminary match for both teams. Korea still have games against India (on the 20th) and Kazakhstan and should progress to the knock out rounds. However, for their supporters, who comprised the majority of the crowd, it was almost as if a fairytale had, at least temporarily, gone off script.

The 200-odd cheering squad, made up largely of South Korean expatriates in the Indonesian capital certainly couldn't be accused of not doing their best to egg the side - also comprising three North Korean players - onward. They waved banners proclaiming 'We are one!" and "Well done Korea" while drums thundered around them. They chanted throughout the games. They had even made the cheers unity-appropriate. "Usually we say South Korea Hwaiting (fighting), but this time we were only chanting Korea Hwaiting," says 15-year-old Jun Seo Lee who had come with his parents to cheer the side. It wasn't enough to help his side cross the line though. "It's kind of disappointing to lose," says Jun, holding a little white flag with the blue map of the unified Korean peninsula.

Korea fans, Jun Seo Lee and Chae Inshooh cheer on the Unified team in the 2018 Asian GamesJonathan Selvaraj

This isn't the first time the two Koreas are playing as one. The combined Korea women's hockey team was the feel-good story of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang despite them losing all five games. There's more hope this time around with the basketball team, for the three North Koreans have been added to the core of the South Korean team that won Gold last time around in Incheon.

"Isn't it good to have a joint team? I think we should have more unified teams in other sports. Let's show the united power of the North and the South," North Korea's Olympic committee vice chairman Won Kul U had said at the opening ceremony of the North Korean delegation in Jakarta on Thursday. There's plenty of bonhomie between the players. "Everyone in the team was excited to be playing together with the players from North Korea. The three of them don't have a lot of experience, so the senior South Korean players did their best to help them out," says Choi Jae Young, a journalist from South Korea.

Indeed, Korea had begun well, hammering hosts Indonesia 108-40. And so the loss in their second match, to Chinese Taipei, ranked 14 places below South Korea, at 40th in the world rankings, was unexpected. As it turns out, good intentions do not automatically translate into results.

Ro Suk Yong (R) seen here defending Huang Pingjen during Unified Korea's clash against Chinese Taipei, was Korea's stand out performerLintao Zhang/Getty Images

That's partly due to the fact that the three North Koreans - Jang Mi Gyong, Ro Suk Yong, and Kim Hye Yon - only had a couple of weeks to train with their South Korean counterparts. "We haven't had a lot of time to work together so we made mistakes in our defensive tactics," South Korean coach Moon Kyu Lee told reporters after the game. Taipei's coach - American Albert Wagner could sympathise for one of his own players - center Hsile Bao -- had joined his squad relatively recently. "South Korea is very strong and the Unified team is also very strong. We had a player who only joined us today because she was injured. So we know the difficulty in working together when you haven't had a lot of time to train as a single team. I guess it was the same problem for them," he said after the game.

Korea did have moments to cheer about, though. They managed to pull themselves back from a ten point deficit late in the second quarter to draw level. They also seem to have found a star in the North Korean center Yong who top scored with 32 points.

For the spectators at least, the most significant takeaway seems to be the unity shown by players representing two countries who haven't yet signed a peace treaty 65 years after the end of the Korean War. Some of the biggest cheers of the match came in the third quarter when North Korean Yong passed through to South Korean captain Yunghui who made the assist to Kim Hangyul whose layup closed the gap between the two sides to 53-51.

"As a game it was disappointing to lose. But from a motivational point it was great. It gives us hope for the future. I didn't think I would ever see the two Koreas playing together. They were playing as a cohesive unit and it looked like they had been playing together for a lot more than two weeks. But it gives us hope for the future. I hope we can see a united Korea at every Asian Games and Olympics," says Chae Insooh, who had come to cheer the team.

That goodwill seems to have rubbed off on Wagner too. Despite their victory, Taipei, who have just one player above six feet tall, struggled to defend against a tall Korean side. Wagner couldn't help wondering whether he could poach a few players from China, all but two of whose players tower over six feet. He doesn't seem dissuaded by the fact that China's political ties with Taipei, which it considers a breakaway province, are frosty. "They are very good as a South Korean team and they are very good as a unified team. We don't have a lot of height. It would be good to get a few tall players too. Maybe we need a combined team too," he joked.