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In this June 13, 2012 photo, North Korean Li Pun Hui speaks to media at the Taedonggong Cultural Center for the Disabled in Pyongyang, North Korea. Putting aside politics, the intensely competitive Li paired up with her arch rival, South Korean star Hyun Jung-hwa, in 1991 as part of the first "unified Korea" team to march into international competition wearing the flag of the Korean Peninsula. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Ex-N. Korean star recalls ‘ping pong diplomacy’
The Games » Teammates fondly recall how they met in 1991 as enemies and parted as friends, and champions.
First Published Jul 12 2012 11:30 am • Last Updated Jul 12 2012 09:49 pm

Pyongyang, North Korea • Her eyes well up when Li Pun Hui recalls her role in a historic example of "ping pong diplomacy."

In 1991, the North Korean table tennis star paired with her archrival, South Korea’s Hyun Jung-hwa, as part of the first "unified Korea" team to march into international competition wearing the blue flag of the Korean Peninsula. With relations between the foes at a low point, the episode is not about to be repeated at the London Olympics. But Li and Hyun fondly recall how they met as enemies and parted as friends, and champions.

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"For 50 days, 24 hours a day, we lived together as one, trained together, slept in the same room and ate all our meals together," Li told The Associated Press at an interview in Pyongyang. "We shared the same food — and our feelings."

As separate squads, neither of the Koreas had been able to beat the team they called the "Great Wall" of table tennis: China, winner of eight consecutive women’s world team titles leading up to that year’s championships in Chiba, Japan. But Hyun, a 20-year-old from the southern port city of Busan, and the baby-faced 22-year-old Li teamed to help the Koreas finally break China’s streak and clinch the gold medal.

The recent South Korean film "As One" reconstructs the complex bid to field a united team of players from both sides of the world’s most heavily militarized border. It was just four years after North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 people on board.

At first, the players regarded one another suspiciously. Their countries had fought against one another for three years in the 1950s, and the Korean Peninsula has remained in a state of war since a truce was signed in 1953. In the film, trash talking at a team banquet leads to a brawl.

"Did you see their faces?" one South Korean athlete says in the film. "So morbid."

In a telephone interview with AP, Hyun recalled her dismay when she learned she would be playing doubles with Li, whom she considered a notch lower in skill.

"I was too young to understand how symbolic it was," she said.

Both players were fiercely competitive. Getting past their rivalry, as well the cultural clashes, took time. The film contrasts the rigid orderliness of the North Koreans with the constant horseplay among the southerners.

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Then, one day, Li missed practice, debilitated by hepatitis.

"My heart ached," Hyun said. "Aside from the rivalry between us and between our countries, I started hoping Li would get better and do well for her country."

Against all odds, friendships blossomed. The once-reluctant teammates together sang ballads that predated the peninsula’s division. Their coaches bonded in a marathon drinking session. Stiff handshakes became high fives.

Li and Hyun developed a profound respect and affection for one another. They became confidantes as well as teammates, and their performances were crucial in helping the unified team win the women’s title.

A 1991 photo shows the two in identical blue team suits, smiling, their hands clasped.

"We speak the same language," Li said. "We’re the same people. We’re Korean. We all had the same goal: To win."

But as the movie shows, they sometimes sparred — teasingly — with their ping pong paddles as well as with words.

Did you ever want to live in the South?" says the actress, Ha Ji-won, who portrays Hyun. "We live better than the North. The health care is better."

"Isn’t life better in the U.S. than the South?" the fictional Li, played by Bae Doona, fires back. "Why don’t you live there?"

In the film, Li admires Hyun’s gold ring. Hyun confides that it was a gift from her father, who was hospitalized back home.

At their tearful parting, Hyun presses the ring into Li’s hands.

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