SEOUL — Many South Koreans are up in arms over a plan to field a single Korean women's hockey team at next month's Winter Olympics, viewing it as a step too far in the government's attempt to bring about a thaw in relations between the two Koreas.
At the same time, the two sides struck a deal for both Korean teams to march together in the Opening Ceremonies under a blue-and-white flag showing a unified peninsula — as they have done at previous sporting events, including Olympic Games.
Marching together and forming a unified hockey team would bring the estranged countries closer together than simply having North Korea participate in the Games, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday while visiting athletes at the National Training Center south of Seoul.
"I believe our people and people around the world will be moved while watching such a sight," he said, according to pool reports from his visit, which came before the agreement was reached. "It will also mark a good start to improving South-North Korea ties for the future."
But South Korean hockey players and officials are annoyed that the engagement efforts will probably result in the exclusion of half the South's hockey players to make way for the athletes from the North at the Olympics, which open Feb. 9.
"I think there is damage to our players," Sarah Murray, the coach of the South Korean team, told reporters.
"It's hard because the players have earned their spots, and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players," she said.
Online petitions calling on the presidential Blue House to withdraw the plan have collected thousands of signatures, and people are taking to social media to vent their frustration.
Moon, a progressive leader who favors engagement with North Korea, has been promoting the Olympics as the "peace Games" and hopes that the diplomacy involved in bringing North Korea to the event will create a better environment for broader talks, which could involve the North's nuclear weapons program.
Kim Jong Un's regime, however, has been adamant that denuclearization is not an inter-Korean issue and is not related to the current discussion.
A senior official with the Korea Ice Hockey Association said the plan for the joint hockey team came as a "shock" to the players.
"They were just furious and found the idea absurd," the unnamed official told Reuters. "We are utterly speechless that the government just picked us out of blue and asked us to play with total strangers at the Olympics."
The proposal came from South Korea during the first round of talks last week, but North Korea did not respond until Wednesday.
The two Koreas have never fielded a joint team at the Olympics before, although they did combine teams at table tennis and soccer championships in 1991.
Further details on the joint hockey team will be decided when the two Koreas meet with International Olympic Committee officials in Switzerland on Saturday.
North Korea has already agreed to send a 140-member orchestra to perform in the South during the Olympics, and it agreed Wednesday to send 230 people in a "cheering squad" and 30 people in a taekwondo martial arts demonstration group.