As South Korea’s national soccer coach prepared to play Japan in a 1954 World Cup qualifier, President Syngman Rhee, who’d been liberated, with the rest of Korea, from Japan’s brutal colonial rule in 1945, had some advice should the Koreans lose: “Don’t think about coming back alive,” he supposedly told the coach. “Just throw yourself into the Genkai Sea.”
There are sports rivalries, and then there’s Korea versus Japan.
The fierce grudges over historical persecution and a thousand perceived national and cultural slights cannot be untwined from the sports for many Koreans. These swirling emotions are front and center Wednesday as a combined team of North and South Koreans plays regional power Japan in women’s hockey.
Both have yet to win a game these Olympics. Both desperately want that win to come against their loathed rival.
“It’s not just me. If you’re a Korean, you feel it deep down in your heart that our team must always beat Japan in any sport,” said Choi Young-wook, 49, a South Korean. “It will be deeply satisfying if the joint team defeats them, because Japan doesn’t want the Koreas to be unified again.”
The Koreas share much, not least language and culture, but they’ve also been divided for seven decades and are still in a technical state of war. Just weeks ago, there were real fears of military conflict here. More than any temporary cooperation on the hockey ice, then, it may be their shared hatred of Japan — and the near universal perception that Tokyo has never fully apologized for or acknowledged its colonial evils — that joins them most forcefully.
The last time the Koreas were unified in fact was during Japanese rule from 1910 to 1945. The end of WWII saw the division of the peninsula into a U.S.-backed south and Soviet-backed north.
In the South, this history can sometimes feel fresh.
Weekly demonstrations have gone on for more than two decades in front of the Japanese Embassy in Seoul by an ever-dwindling number of the thousands of Korean women forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the colonial era. Koreans also like to raise the debt Japan owes mainland Asia (Korea and China) for the large elements of religion, culture and language it borrowed during its formative centuries. All but forgotten in Japan, there are angry memories still here about a hill of sliced-off Korean noses collected during a 16th-century Japanese invasion of the peninsula.
All this and more is in the air as these two hockey teams meet.
In the arena Wednesday, South Korean cheerleaders in yellow miniskirts bounced to K-pop while North Korean cheerleaders sat in matching red jumpsuits. Fans waved flags that showed a single united Korean Peninsula or the South Korean national flag.
“We really want to beat Japan, even if we have to literally throw our bodies into it,” forward Choi Ji-yeon, a South Korean, said. Defeating Japan would bring “much happiness” to the Korean people because of the “bad things that happened with Japan in the past.”
The animosity has only seemed to increase during the Olympics.
Analyst Joshua Cooper Ramo threw kindling on an already healthy fire when he said during NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremony, speaking of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attendance, that “every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural and technical and economic example that has been so important to their own transformation.”
Some Koreans might grant improvements in infrastructure and other areas during the colonization. But it is difficult to imagine anyone, north or south, putting that on the same level as 35-years of Japanese oppression and the systematic looting of Korean resources and manpower.
Many in Japan and South Korea watched with unease as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump traded threats of war over the last year amid a near-constant barrage of weapons testing by the North, which is approaching its goal of an arsenal of nuclear missiles that can reliably target U.S. cities.
Japanese officials have expressed concern during the games at Kim Jong Un’s sister flying south with an invitation to talk, which South Korean President Moon Jae-in is considering. Past conciliatory moves by the Koreas have only allowed North Korea breathing room so it could continue its weapons programs, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said this month, according to the Asahi Shimbun. Abe also warned Moon not to fall for North Korea’s “smile diplomacy” because the North remains committed to nuclear weapons.
Japan’s maneuvers have been noticed here. Kim Seo-jin, a 23-year-old South Korean student, “very much” wants to see the Koreans defeat Japan, in part because of her anger over Abe. “What has Abe ever done for peace?” Kim said. “The Koreas are making huge strides toward peace with the joint team, but all Abe did was make blunt insults about it.”
The Korean team has had some tough games, and Japan is the favorite Wednesday. Korea lost 8-0 to Switzerland, and then 8-0 to Sweden. After that game, Korean players vowed redemption in their last preliminary round match against Japan.
“If you asked our players three years ago what their goal was for the Olympics, they just wanted to beat Japan,” Sarah Murray, the combined Korean team’s Canadian coach, said after the loss to Sweden. “In addition to the history of the two countries our biggest rival is Japan. They’re the top women’s team in Asia and our players have always been striving to beat Japan.”
Kim Jung-hoon, 44, said that lingering ill feelings over their shared past has made Korea versus Japan a great sports rivalry. And her take on Wednesday’s game? “It’s going to be intense.”