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The Asian Games revealed a new divide between South Korea and the North

Gold medalist North Korea's Song Kukhyang, center, silver medalist North Korea's Jong Chunhui, left, and bronze medalist South Korea's Kim Suhyeon, right, gesture during the medal ceremony of women's 76kg group A weightlifting competition at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, on Oct. 5, 2023.
JADE GAO
/
AFP via Getty Images
Gold medalist North Korea's Song Kukhyang, center, silver medalist North Korea's Jong Chunhui, left, and bronze medalist South Korea's Kim Suhyeon, right, gesture during the medal ceremony of women's 76kg group A weightlifting competition at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, on Oct. 5, 2023.

SEOUL, South Korea – South Korean weightlifter Kim Suhyeon was preparing for the clean and jerk portion of the women's 76-kilogram event at the Asian Games last week when a North Korean coach quietly approached her. Kim's Chinese rival, who finished third in the snatch after two North Koreans, had just dropped out due to injury.

"The coach told me, 'You have a shot now, so keep it up,'" Kim recounted the exchange to reporters after finishing the competition with a bronze medal.

International sports events have provided unusual opportunities for South Koreans to directly interact – and in a few occasions, collaborate – with North Koreans. But at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, which concluded last weekend, Kim's story stood out as a rare instance of inter-Korean amity.

Elsewhere at the Games, which marked North Korea's return to a major international sports contest after years of absence due to the coronavirus pandemic, South Korean athletes and journalists reported that North Koreans refused to engage with them. Some even avoided customary handshakes or photo sessions atop the podium.

The chilly mood was a reversal from the last Asian Games in 2018. Back then, the two Koreas fielded joint teams and paraded into the opening ceremony together, following an agreement reached at an inter-Korean summit earlier that year.

Kang Lee Seul of the South Korean women's basketball team, who played with North Koreans as a joint team in 2018, told reporters that her former teammates and coach ignored her this year. After playing against North Korea at the recent Games, she said in a post-match interview that they avoided her eyes and walked away when she called out to them, according to Yonhap News Agency.

Professor Jung Giwoong of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, who studies inter-Korean relations and sports diplomacy, says this was North Korea's attitude toward the South during the Games: "We are strangers now, not brothers."

That message was loud and clear when members of the North Korean delegation took issue with South Korean journalists' calling them "North Korea" or "the North" in two separate press conferences. They demanded that their country be called its official name "Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

Jung says their insistence reflects Pyongyang's recent attempts to redefine the inter-Korean relationship. The two Koreas have customarily referred to each other as "the north side" and "the south side" in inter-Korean exchanges because they see their relationship not as a state-to-state relationship but as a special relationship based on ethnic unity and pursuit of reunification.

But earlier this year, North Korea signaled a possible change when Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong called the South by its official name "Republic of Korea" for the first time in a statement.

During the Games, the North made another unusual move by referring to South Korea as "puppet" in its state media coverage of an inter-Korean women's soccer match. It has used the term before to criticize the South's relationship with the United States in political contexts, but not as often in sports.

"Sports' claim to be nonpolitical makes it all the more easy to use sports as a tool for achieving political goals," says Professor Jung Giwoong.

In 2018, North Korea used its participation in the Winter Olympics hosted by South Korea to arrange an inter-Korean summit, which led to a historic U.S.-North Korea summit for denuclearization negotiation later that year.

And now, with Cold War-style tension intensifying in the region amid stalled dialogue, Jung says North Korea took the occasion of the Asian Games to sharpen its critical message toward the U.S. and South Korea while showing loyalty and support to the hosting China.

At the medal winners' press conference after the women's weightlifting event, the two North Korean athletes that won gold and silver medal, respectively, joined Kim Suhyeon. They expressed their concerns about the injured Chinese weightlifter and congratulated her birthday, but had no words to Kim.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.