STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
At the Olympics, North and South Korea made headlines for making nice, but South Korea's relations have cooled with an ally, Japan. NPR's Elise Hu reports on the backdrop to a rivalry.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ready?
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ELISE HU, BYLINE: On the ice, Nao Kodaira of Japan and two-time gold medalist Lee Sang-hwa of South Korea are the world's best at the 500-meter speedskate, finishing within fractions of seconds for years and constantly compared to one another. Their much-watched showdown Sunday was packed with extra meaning because their countries compete so fiercely, too.
JEFF KINGSTON: Wherever they are competing, there is certainly the unresolved grievances of the colonial era loom large.
HU: Jeff Kingston is the Asia Studies chair at Tokyo's Temple University. He wrote the book "Nationalism In Asia." He says South Koreans haven't forgotten Japan's brutal colonization of their country, which lasted from 1910-1945. In sports...
KINGSTON: Beating Japan is certainly on the minds of South Koreans. Not losing to South Korea's on the minds of the Japanese.
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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
HU: For fans from these neighboring countries with a troubled past, this skating matchup was the one to watch. Hikaru Takamizawa came over from Japan to catch it.
HIKARU TAKAMIZAWA: We have to win the Korea always...
HU: You have to beat Korea.
TAKAMIZAWA: Yeah (laughter).
HU: He said this rivalry was ingrained around the same time he learned how to read.
You were quite young, right?
TAKAMIZAWA: Yeah, I was 6 or 7 years old, yeah, really (laughter).
HU: The jostling in sports mirrors what's happening with the larger Japan-South Korea relationship lately. Japanese diplomats filed a formal complaint against their neighbor after South Korea put tiny, contested islands on the white unified Korea flag used during these games. The North Korea issue is coming between the two countries' leaders, too. When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confronted South Korean President Moon Jae-in at an Olympic summit, things got tense over military drills.
KINGSTON: Moon, more or less, told him to butt out; this is a domestic matter, and he would make the call.
HU: Jeff Kingston says things are somewhere between cold and frosty right now.
KINGSTON: So it was amazing to me that the NBC commentator at the opening ceremony decided it was just the right time to remind everybody.
HU: If you missed it, an NBC commentator said, quote, "every Korean will tell you that Japan is a cultural, and technological and economic example."
KINGSTON: First of all, it's untrue. And the timing of it, when South Korea is hosting the Olympics - it was just astounding cluelessness.
HU: NBC apologized. Here in the region, the rivalry is so internalized that it brought North and South Korea together. The coach of the unified Korean hockey team said success for her team would mean beating Japan. The team lost but won over Koreans by scoring their only goal of the Olympics when it mattered - against Japan. In the speedskating showdown, Japan's Nao Kodaira ultimately edged out Korea's Lee Sang-hwa, winning a gold to Lee's silver. Moments after, Kodaira went over to a shaken and sobbing Lee and pulled her close. They skated side by side, draped in their respective countries' flags - a rare sight, given the state of Japan-South Korea relations. Elise Hu, NPR News, Gangneung, South Korea.
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