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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.

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Afterward, the two went home to their opposing sides of the Demilitarized Zone.

Restricted from writing or phoning, they saw each other only one more time, at the next world championships, when the two Koreas competed separately and Hyun won the singles titles. China resumed its dominance in the women’s team event and launched another winning streak following the solitary triumph of the united Korean team.

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In the years that followed, expectations were high that the two Koreas would keep using sports diplomacy to forge peace — at least on the playing field. And at times, there was some traction.

In 2000, North and South Korean athletes marched together into the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics under the unified Korea flag, sparking a standing ovation. Months earlier, their leaders held a landmark summit in Pyongyang, raising hopes of reconciliation. There was talk during those "sunshine" years of suiting up as a combined team for competition again.

But with relations now at their lowest point in decades, and Pyongyang issuing regular threats against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his allies, that won’t happen in London.

Team Korea, which is sending 245 South Koreans to the London Olympics to compete in 22 sports, will keep its distance from Team PRK Korea, which is sending 51 athletes to compete in nine sports, including women’s football, boxing and, of course, table tennis.

Pyongyang also will send its first delegation to the Paralympics — headed by none other than Li.

At 44, she is still athletic and has devoted herself to bringing the disabled out of the shadows of North Korean society through sports. Li, whose son has cerebral palsy, now heads her country’s first Paralympic committee and was interviewed at the Taedonggang Cultural Center for the Disabled in Pyongyang.

Hyun went on to become one of South Korea’s most decorated players and respected coaches, an Olympic gold medalist who in 2010 was inducted into the International Table Tennis Federation’s Hall of Fame. Now 42, she is a director of the Korea Table Tennis Association in Seoul.

She misses Li, and remembers nights spent huddled together over snacks, away from the watchful eye of the North Korean security detail. An attempt by the filmmakers to bring them together for a reunion in Beijing was thwarted when South Korea’s Unification Ministry denied Hyun’s request for permission to meet the North Korean.

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Were they ever to meet again, Hyun said, she would tell Li all about her family.

Nor have the ensuing two decades diminished Li’s affection for Hyun, who she describes as "a woman of few words" — straightforward and ambitious.

"I miss her very much," said Li, her eyes glistening with tears. She still, 21 years later, cherishes the gold ring given to her by her old doubles partner.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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