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Unified Korean women's ice hockey team debuts at Olympics to heartfelt cheers

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 Unified Korean team gathers in a group before the women's preliminary round ice hockey match against Switzerland at the Kwandong Hockey Center on Feb. 10, 2018.Jung Yeon-Je / AFP - Getty Images

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 12 players from the North and 23 from 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.

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"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."

North Korean supporters cheer before the preliminary round of the women's hockey game between Switzerland and the combined Koreas at the 2018 Winter Olympics on Feb. 10, 2018.Jae C. Hong / AP

But while the blue-and-white Korean Unification Flag was waved throughout the venue and fans held posters with hearts and sported South Korean flags as well, 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, came into the arena to the sound of the theme from "Rocky" and other high-energy songs, greeting the frenzied spectators with "Hello! Hello!" in Korean.

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 choreography, which included face masks and props, seemed to overwhelm at such a rough-and-tumble sporting event.

Related: Unified Korean Olympic hockey team 'will work together fine'

Under the agreement of a joint team, at least three North Korean players must be used during each game. Initially, some fans had protested using any North Koreans at all, fearing the players could weaken their chances at the Olympics.

The first 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.

Image: Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 1
IOC President Thomas Bach, North Korean ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam and Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attend the women's ice hockey preliminary round.Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

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."

Related: Pence vows to defend U.S. from North Korea

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, the spectator.

At the game's end, the crowd cheered for the Korean team, which will play in another preliminary round against Sweden on Monday. It didn't quite matter the score — just that they took the ice as one.

And even after the players skated off and the crowds cleared out, the North's indefatigable cheer squad remained in the stands, bobbing their heads and serenading the stragglers in a unified song that, much like the Korean team, wouldn't quit.