GANGNEUNG, South Korea — They may have lost in their debut game at the Winter Olympics on Saturday night, but the first-ever joint Korean women’s ice hockey team easily won the crowd.
The team, comprised of players from the North and the South, has been a highly anticipated feature of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, which is being held just 50 miles from the North Korean border and follows a string of tense moments between the two nations.
But with these Olympics bringing optimism for continued diplomacy and a potential pathway toward lasting peace, the sight of North and South Koreans unifying in the name of sport — even if they were shut out by the Swiss 8-0 — was not lost on those sitting inside the sold-out Kwandong Hockey Center.
Related: How to watch the 2018 Winter Olympics
“I am South Korean, and although our country is divided, I think we are the same people,” said Do Yeon Lee, 14, of Seoul, who traveled to these Olympics just to watch the Korean women play. “It’s like an honor to be here.”
Kim Se Kyoung, a 40-year-old teacher from Seoul, added that “It’s very meaningful and impressive.” Her 95-year-old grandmother was born in North Korea, and she has longed for unification on the Korean Peninsula. (The two Koreas technically remain at war.)
“Her granddaughter and grandson are here,” Kim Se Kyoung said, “and this game is very meaningful for her. … It could be one step for peace in Korea.”
But while the blue-and-white Korean Unification Flag flew throughout the venue, perhaps the most vocal of the Korean team’s supporters was the squad sent by North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un.
The approximately 230-member cheering section, made up of young women dressed in identical red track suits, streamed into the arena to the sounds of the theme from “Rocky,” greeting the crowd with “Hello! Hello!” in Korean.
Related: Pence vows to defend U.S. from North Korea
Many in the awe-struck crowd snapped pictures as the cheer team — nicknamed the “army of beauties” in South Korea — sang in endless repetition, trying their best to compete with the English-language pop songs blasting from the speakers. The women received a warm welcome from attendees, although their choreographed routines, which included face masks, appeared almost comical at such a rough-and-tumble sporting event.
The game also attracted major dignitaries, including International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam, and Kim Yo Jong, the sister of Kim Jong Un.
Earlier Saturday, Moon had hosted Kim Yo Jong and other senior North Korean officials at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, and it was announced that Pyongyang asked to reciprocate by hosting Moon for a summit “at an early date.”
But any movement between the nations would also hinge on the United States, which has warned of further sanctions if North Korea continues to thumb its nose at calls to cease its weapons programs.
Vice President Mike Pence told NBC News’ Lester Holt this week that the U.S. is “going to continue to put all the pressure to bear economically and diplomatically, while preserving all of our military options to see that that happens.”
But South Koreans at Saturday’s hockey game were hopeful the diplomatic freeze was finally thawing after decades of deep divisions that have left the South prosperous and the North struggling economically.
The future summit “is a very good gesture,” said Kim Se Kyoung.
If anyone showed team pride, it was the North Korean delegation.
Even after the Korean players skated off the ice and the crowds cleared out, the North’s indefatigable cheer squad remained in the stands, bobbing their heads and serenading the stragglers in a song that just kept going.