Written bySriram Veera
“Who is that?” It wasn’t the best attempt at the banter that Hyun Jung-hwa had tried. She was 21, she had learnt from the television news that she had to play together with Li pun-hui from North, and she found Li “wasn’t a particularly adorable person”, and the two weren’t able to break the icy relationship at the start of a month-long camp when she decided to try that humour. Li Bun-hui used to always wear the then North Korean dictator Kum II-Sung’s badge that prompted that banter. “She blew her top!” Hyun would say later.
It wasn’t an easy time to say the least, not just for the young women, but for the two countries in general to be indulging in the ping-pong diplomacy. Just four years earlier, North Korean agents had blown up a South Korean plane, killing all 115 people on board, and the relations weren’t great when this peace step was attempted after five months and 22 rounds of discussions. Hyun’s second attempt at peace proved much better. She began calling Li, a year older than her, as elder sister in the Korean language. Li still replied with a cold “comrade” but the relationship started to get better as curiosity about the other (country) took over. A sudden illness helped. Li didn’t turn up for practice one day as she was hit by hepatitis. “My heart ached,” Hyun said in an Associated Press interview in 2012.
“I started hoping Li would get better and do well for her country”. It was the beginning of a most unusual friendship. Similar culture, language, food, and boyfriend talk began to help. They would eat gochujang (red pepper paste), and chats became more frequent: “We shared the same food – and our feelings,” Li said. “We speak the same language. We are the same people. We are Korean. We all had the same goal: to win.”
That they did, against all odds. Not many gave them chance against China, but the “Korea” team of Hyun, Li, Hong Ch-ok, and Yu Sun-bok won the gold medal after taking the tie 3-2. In South Korea, back then, Hyun was considered a sportsperson who had tremendous control over her emotions: her face would hardly betray her real feelings, and was known only to shout “Fighting” during tense moments – and she was known for her come-from-behind victories. But after the final match on April 29 1991, the ice-queen melted. “ I rarely cry but on that day, I cried with my nose running.” The video footage is quite startling. More than 100 reporters swarm around them, cheering and emotional about the significance of that unified moment. “Worried that we might be injured, our team managers had to escort us to the locker room.”
It wasn’t just South’s Hyun who was moved, Li, too, knew the historic situation she found herself in. “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.”
Hyun had taken up Table Tennis as her father was a club TT player, but who fell sick, and died before she made it to the national team. She played the game for her mother, who was initially opposed to her playing a sport but Hyun won her over by winning. She was driven by the need to help her mother financially.
As the celebrated careers of both women wound up, their paths diverged. As an athlete who was a training-maniac, Hyun couldn’t initially adjust to the emptiness of post retirement. She would wake up at 6 am and wonder what to do. Eventually, she signed up for a English-learning course. “For the first 6 months, I felt as I was walking on air. I didn’t know what I was living for … I continued to feel depressed.” Table Tennis helped her recuperate. She took up coaching, and normalcy returned. Out in the North, Li was having tough times as well. She suffered from meningitis and had a disabled child. She began working for a disabled people’s organisation. For years the two hadn’t met as the countries had returned to hostilities, though the two had parted ways as friends in 1991. Hyun had taken off her ring, and presented it to Li who gifted a souvenir painting of Pyongyang. In 2011, Hyun would run into a diplomat who rekindled the memory through a photo. “The British ambassador in Seoul who had visted North Korea gave me a picture of himself taken with Li Bun-hai.
She has put on a lot of weight. She looked so young and innocent before.” A year later, when Li was asked about Hyun: “I miss her very much” and talked about how she still cherishes that ring. They finally met at the PyeongChang Paralympics earlier this year, and one wonders whether even they would have thought that the sport the two loved so dearly would yet again form the bridge between the two countries, so soon. History is calling, and the two ladies, more than most, know what it all feels.
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