Olympic 'hugs and smiles' on ice for US and N. Koreans

Gangneung (South Korea) (AFP) - Despite the freeze in ties between the United States and North Korea, a handful of skaters from both sides are breaking the Olympic ice with a budding friendship.

Olympic 'hugs and smiles' on ice for US and N. Koreans

Olympic 'hugs and smiles' on ice for US and N. Koreans

Tensions remain high between the North and the United States. But on the ice language is the main barrier between friends.

"I do what I can and we smile and hug each other every day," said American Marissa Brandt, who players for the unified Korean squad along with 22 North Koreans.

"They are very friendly and sweet," added Brandt, who was adopted from South Korea at four-months-old by her American parents. Her sister plays in the American hockey squad at the Olympics.

The situation came about because South Korea co-opted the Americans with Korean heritage ahead of the Games. Then the North Koreans showed up two weeks before the start on a wave of inter-Korean reconciliation.

It was an awkward start for the established South Korean skaters when they welcomed the new teammates from the North with bouquets of flowers and tight-lipped smiles.

After several meals and sharing a few good jokes, the tension eased and the newcomers were accepted.

"When we sit in the dining hall and we have conversations, it's pretty much every day stuff like talking about food or who has a boyfriend," said forward Randi Griffin, another American of Korean heritage.

"They are just people, they are young women, they are hockey players just like us."

Language is an issue, with the North Koreans unfamiliar with most hockey terminology which South Korean players have adopted from English.

But the Northerners have made efforts to fit in, Griffin said.

"Even today some of the North Korean players were talking to me on the bench and I heard them saying things like 'line change' and 'face off'," Griffin said after Wednesday's match against Japan, which the Koreans lost 1-4.

Still, the North Koreans remain under tight control and surveillance, always trailed by minders and kept in separate apartments and buses from their foreign teammates.

- Arm's length -

Griffin scored the lone Olympic goal for the Koreans in the defeat to Japan on Wednesday. They lost their previous two games 8-0 each to Switzerland and Sweden and have only one more game to play before making their Olympic bow.

South Korea has only 319 registered female hockey players of its own, according to an International Ice Hockey Federation survey last year.

So the Americans were brought over to try out for South Korea's team a few years ago as the country scoured through colleges across North America, looking for ethnic Korean players as it scrambled to assemble a team good enough to avoid humiliation at the Olympics.

Then following a late agreement by North Korea to take part in the Olympics, the 22 players from across the border were sent to join the squad only two weeks before the Olympics.

And despite the speedy Olympic-driven rapprochement between the Koreas, the US has kept reconciliation at arms length, insisting there will be no olive branch until Pyongyang takes concrete steps towards denuclearisation.

US Vice President Mike Pence, who led the US delegation to the Olympics, did not engage with the North Korean representatives just a few seats away at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang. Nor did he get up to cheer when athletes from the host nation and its neighbour entered the arena together behind a unification flag.

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