Hockey Helps Thaw the Ice between the United States and North Korea

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by Savannah Shih
Alex Frecon and his North Korean teammate pose for a photo after their final match. [Photo: Alex Frecon]

Sports have long connected the United States and Asia, and now they are helping to thaw the frosty US ties with North Korea. Several Minnesotans have recently found themselves playing alongside North Koreans in various hockey matches.

Perhaps the biggest news of the recent Pyeongchang Winter Olympics came before they even began, when it was announced that North and South Korea would be unified into one team. Most significantly, the Korean women’s hockey team consisted of players from both North and South Korea. Yet, Korea was not the only country represented on the team. Three Americans with Korean heritage — Marissa Brandt of Minnesota, Grace Lee of Colorado, and Randi Griffin of North Carolina — gained dual citizenship before the Olympics, and traveled to Pyeongchang to compete. The Korean team was also coached by another native Minnesotan, Sarah Murray. Though the team left the Games without a win, the mood remained celebratory, as the players recognized their history-making achievement. The teammates also had a chance to bond off the ice and avoid all of the politics surrounding the team. Griffin noted, “We sit in the dining hall and have conversations just pretty much about every day, talking about food or who has boyfriends. They’re just people.”

On a somewhat smaller but no less significant level, another Minnesota native, Alex Frecon, was invited last year to play in an exhibition match against the North Korean national men’s hockey team. Despite the potential challenges for Americans travelling to North Korea, Frecon, who plays hockey in a recreational league, was excited by the chance to compete against the national team. In fact, the most difficult part was trying to build a team of strangers to play against the quite competitive North Korean team. Still, everyone had a chance to relax at the end of the tournament, when the teams were mixed for the last match, and Frecon played with North Koreans. Frecon said he was amazed by his experience in the country and his ability to bond with the North Koreans, noting that the “love for the game translates across the world.”  

Savannah Shih is a research intern at the East-West Center and a graduate student of Asian Studies at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.