United Korea Already Triumphant Ahead Of World Handball Championship
January 7, 2019
18 months ago, as the world watched North Korea boom rocket after rocket over Japan and listened to Donald Trump verbally provoke the ‘short and fat’ ‘Rocket Man’, the Korean peninsula looked to be on the cusp of war.
The missiles fired by the North were test firings of short-range ballistic missiles, yet each one brought no advanced warning, and to the outside world, especially to those in the Far East, the aggression was clear and the fear was real.
Indeed, on August 29th, when North Korea fired their 14th test missile of the year and second in four days, in Hokkaido in the north of Japan, sirens wailed and cell phones flashed with the message, “Right now a North Korean missile is flying over Japan. It’s very dangerous. Please seek cover.” The message, in the end, was superfluous and premature – the rocket landed 730 miles off the Hokkaido coast 2 minutes later – yet the anxiety was explicit.
On September 15th, the same happened, “Missile launch! Missile launch! A missile appears to have been launched from North Korea. Take cover in a building or underground”, read the message. “Missile passed. Missile passed,” came the follow-up seven minutes later.
That strike was the final straw for the US and the South. Four days later Donald Trump said, “if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Four days on from that, South Korea revealed they had a plan to assassinate Jong Un should it come down to it.
But the world’s economic sanctions soon began to squeeze the North’s already struggling economy into submission. At the beginning of January, Kim Jong Un eventually relented and extended an olive branch to the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in calling for a unified Korea to compete at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
“I am willing to send a delegation and take necessary measures, and I believe that the authorities of the North and South can urgently meet to discuss the matter. We sincerely hope that the South will successfully host the Olympics,” announced Jong Un at the time.
12 months on, tensions between the North and the South and the North and the USA have thawed significantly, and though trepidation still certainly exists, in the sporting arena, immense progress has been made.
Since Korea’s unified ice hockey side entered the Olympics last February, to admittedly dismal effect, the North and the South have competed as one at the Asian Games, the Asian Para Games, and the World Table Tennis Championships, and will enter a unified team in this month’s World Handball Championships.
“It’s meaningful that we’re going to compete in our first world championships in six years with North Koreans,” says head coach Cho Young-Shin.
“We have strong teams in our group, but we’ll face them with a learner’s mindset and fight with grit.”
Korea have only played one game together since the unification, and they go into the championships as huge outsiders (they’re 350/1 to win the tournament with Unibet), while in their group they’ve been drawn alongside two of the three favourites in France and hosts Germany.
South Korea have been far from impressive as a singular nation of late either, failing to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games and the 2015 and 2017 World Championships, and the North Koreans aren’t likely to strengthen the side.
“I heard that North Koreans who play handball from a young age face difficulties when they became adults because there are not enough clubs,” said Young-Shin after the announcement of the proposal. “I expect them to have junior-level skills compared with our players, but I need to find out their capabilities through training.”
However, that so far has been the crux of the problem for the Koreans. Ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, 70% of the South Korean public opposed the creation of a unified women’s ice hockey team with the coach also expressing concerns that the Northern players may not be entering the side on merit. When it comes to handball, that is also undeniably the case too.
“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,” Young-Shin told DW diplomatically on Monday.
Though the ‘sports diplomacy’ has been encouraging and has undoubtedly brought a wave of optimism to North-South political interactions, it’ll be interesting to see how long the honeymoon period will last. Because we’ve been here before.
In 1991, a unified Korea entered the FIFA World Youth Championships and the World Table Tennis Championships, yet the North quickly reneged on further unification following paranoia over what their Northern athletes may hear from their Southern counterparts.
Hyun Jung-hwa, a South Korean who competed in the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships told the New York Times of her Northern partner, “She wanted to know how rich we were, and about how much money I made, in U.S. dollars, and I told her. I just told her everything, and we became friends. And now I miss her. It was just so natural that we were on a team together.”
The feeling from the Southerners ahead of the upcoming Handball World Championships is similar. Though the relationship between the two government’s has been frosty for decades, the bond between the people has remained strong.
“I noticed that I’m senior to the North Korean players, so I think my job is to help our young players to show their best performance,” said South Korean captain Jung Su-Young. “Winning is important, but I want to focus more on us playing a good game as one team.”
The Handball World Championship will be another step towards closer to North-South ties, and though no one is expecting much success on the court, the symbolic success should be enough.
“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,” says Young-Chin.
“As a unified team, we want to show that Korea can find this way, too.”
Here are the bookmakers offering the best handball betting odds
Author: Tom Mortimer
Tom is the editor at Betting Circle and has been creating online content for over 10 years. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.