Miracle of ‘Korea’ Inspires the World in Chiba

The victory of Korean women’s team in 1991 at the 41st Chiba World Table Tennis Championships (WTTC) was especially an exceptional one in Hyun Jung-hwa’s career amongst her achievement of full house. The WTTC held many initial attempts: Events were played for the first time on a blue table, not a green one, while orange ball was used and white uniform was allowed. Moreover, the men’s team event scoring system was shifted from ‘three players, nine singles and five first wins’ of ‘Swaddling method’ to that of ‘four singles, one doubles and three first wins,’ which is similar to that of women’s team event. Sweden won men’s singles, doubles and team events while China’s Deung Yaping won women’s singles informing the advent of the invincible ‘table tennis witch.’ Among all of the new topics and events, the highlight of the Championships was the victory of the unified ‘Korea’ women’s team.

▲ The united Korea team winning the 1991 Chiba WTTC!

The South and North Koreas began contacts to discuss the formation of the joint team from the beginning of 1991. Having Jang Choong-sik and Kim Hyung-jin as representatives of South and North, the two Koreas had meetings for 73 days from the first meeting on 29 November 1990 to the fourth meeting held on 12 February 1991 that eventually led to the first formation of the united team since division. At the working-level negotiations, the two agreed on the team name ‘Korea’ and the team’s anthem to be a Korean folk song ‘Arirang.’ In addition, the team’s flag portrayed the Korean peninsula in white blue on a white background. The decisions became standards for the future sport exchanges between the two Koreas.

The united ‘Korea’ delegation involved 56 athletes (22 athletes—men and 10 women) and team officials. The delegation headed to Chiba after having joint trainings in Nagano and Nagaoka, Japan, a month ahead from the Championships, from 25 March 1991 to 20 April 1991. The athletes from the South and North became ‘one team’ after a month of joint training, overcoming the unfamiliarity and breaking the ice. The Korea team maximized its strength and it was placed on the center of the world’s attention.

The players of the ‘Korea team’ put up a great fight at the Championships held from 24 April to 6 May 1991. The women’s team fought well especially while winning all seven rounds in preliminary. They also made it to the final defeating Soviet Union and Hungary at quarterfinal and semifinal with Hyun Jung-hwa’s’ remarkable play.

▲ Doubles play by Hyun Junng-hwa and Lee Boon-hee

Hyun was undefeated since the preliminary rounds while also having an astonishing match against Hungary at the semifinal. She earned victories in multiple rounds (second singles, third doubles, fourth singles) winning a losing game while the first singles player Yoo Soon-bok was defeated.

The final held in Japan Convention Center on 29 April against China was an intense full match. Yoo and Hyun won the first and second singles while China took the third doubles and fourth singles. The hero of the day was Yoo, defeating the world’s best Deng Yaping in the first singles round and winning over Gao Jun by 2:0 in the last round. The venue was filled with the wave of ‘Korea’ team flags as Yoo shouted out of joy. The united Korea team embraced each other and shed tears of joy.

In fact, the Korea team was predicted to be a weaker than the Chinese team before the match. However, they went against the expectation with their synergy from the unification. The first ten rounds until the semifinals were led by Hyun while Yoo completed the victory playing instead of Lee Boon-hee who was in her best condition. The match showed the world how strong the united team can be. The Korea delegation had good results in the Championships overall as Lee winning the silver in women’s singles and Kim Taek-soo advancing into men’s semifinal. Kim’s bronze medal was also noteworthy as it was the first singles medal in the history of Korean men’s table tennis.

▲ Festivity around the venue, Koreans cheering for one goal
▲ Kim Taek-soo’s memorable play in Chiba 1991

Regardless of results or achievements, the united Korea team was an astonishing event by the formation itself. It was evaluated that the unification bridged the two Koreas while also becoming an important milestone for possible reunification. The 70 million Koreans cheered with one heart during the Championships period and mood for reconciliation was formed between the pro-Seoul and pro-Pyeongyang Federations of Korean Residents in Japan during the joint training period. It was the first time the two Koreas became one under same goal for the first time in 46 years since the division.

▲ Chiba Convention Center filled with team Korea flags

The ‘small reunification’ made in Chiba proved the power of sports that used to be recognized as a tool for system competition. The Korea team made their ways back home while the North leaving on 7 May and the South on 9 May. The players pledged in tears to “never fight again” even in the moment of saying goodbye. Even though they could not become ‘one team’ again for a long time after the Championships, table tennis teams of two Koreas never considered each other enemies but friends since then.

Written by_Han In-su | Photo by_Table Tennis Monthly Database & ITTF Museum