Sport once again takes center stage in the continued peacemaking process between North and South Korea with a joint handball team set to compete at the World Championships. Korea will face co-hosts Germany in Berlin.
Following the symbolic success of a joint Korean ice hockey team at the Winter Olympics last year, sporting relations between the two countries will continue to strengthen at the Handball World Championships in January.
Four North Korean athletes have joined a 16-man South Korean roster in Berlin, Germany, which will co-host the competition with Denmark. Having trained for the past two weeks, the unified team had a friendly match against third-divison side VfL Potsdam on the weekend.
"The World Championship is really meaningful for us, especially since we'll be playing in Berlin. Berlin was a divided city that found a way to peace after the fall of the wall. As a unified team, we want to show that Korea can find this way, too," Korean coach Cho Young-shin said after the game.
Breaking new ground
Even though the new players have had just a limited timeframe to integrate, the team's captain Jung Su-young feels the players are slowly becoming more comfortable with the arrangement.
"We felt a bit distant from each other when we first met the North Koreans. But we've grown closer in the days we've spent together, and now we've become friends," he said.
One of the North Koreans, Ri Kyong-song, said the newcomers were determined to use the new experience to improve but also to help the team perform.
"For us it's the first ever World Championship appearance. We've got loads of expectations about what we will experience and what we'll be able to learn on the court. Of course, as a team we also want a strong result," he said.
Finding success on the court will be difficult, however. The South Korean side is normally ranked 19th in the world and failed to even qualify for the last two tournaments. In 2013, they finished 21st out 24 teams.
As a unified nation they go into the world championship unranked and will be up against it in Group A when facing some of the world's heavyweights. Germany (ranked number one), Russia (4th), France (5th), Serbia (6th) and Brazil (27th) lie in their path and with only the top three sides progressing to the knockouts, Korea will be battling against the odds.
Symbolism outweighs on-court performance?
The gap in quality between the North and South Koreans is quite wide, which could hurt the team's already slim chances of progressing out of Group A. Though coach Cho has promised to field at least one North Korean in each match.
"Technically the North Koreans aren't the strongest, but they really want to integrate into the team. Their conditioning is extremely high. So I'll incorporate that into my tactics to take advantage of their strengths," he said.
While the symbolism of the joint team will override any achievement on the court, Korea will be determined to avoid a sporting embarrassment on par with the joint Olympic women's ice hockey team, which lost all three matches and scored just a solitary goal.
Korea kick off the tournament against Germany on January 10 in Berlin.