By Peter Rutherford
SEOUL (Reuters) – The head coach of the South Korean women’s ice hockey team says her squad was put in a difficult situation having to incorporate North Korean players just weeks before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Sarah Murray, speaking at the Jincheon National Training Center on Monday, said that while she had been given no choice about coaching a joint Korean team there had been no pressure on her to play the North Koreans in actual games.
The two Koreas agreed last week to field a combined women’s ice hockey team and march together under one flag at next month’s Winter Olympics after a new round of talks amid a thaw in cross-border relations.
The International Olympic Committee said on Saturday that 12 North Korea players would join the South’s 23-player squad. The game day roster will continue to be 22 and Murray has to include at least three North Koreans.
The North will also send athletes to take part in figure skating, short track speed skating, cross-country and Alpine skiing at the Feb. 9-25 Games.
“It is a tough situation to have our team be used for political reasons, but its kind of something that’s bigger than ourselves right now,” Murray told a news conference.
“We didn’t really have a lot of say in it. We’re just happy that we don’t have to play six (North Korean) players and this was the best case scenario for the options that were given to us.”
The talks between North and South Korea on the Olympics have brought some respite from the standoff over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
It will mark the first time the two Koreas will compete as a unified team at the Olympics but the decision has been met with anger from some South Korean athletes, while an online petition against the move has garnered tens of thousands of signatories.
Murray said the only criteria she has to decide who plays is what is best for the team.
“I’ve been assured that I have ultimate control,” she said with a laugh. “They keep saying it’s my choice about the lineup, it’s my choice who plays. So as far as I know I have complete control and I’m going to play the players I want.
“So we’re not just going to make a line just to make a line of North Korean players just so they can get ice time.
“We’re going to put in players that are going to be successful and we’re going to play to win with the roster we have.”
North and South Korea are technically still at war because their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)