The joint Korean women's table tennis team won the bronze medal at the world championships in Sweden on Friday.
The combined squad of South Korea and North Korea lost to Japan 3-0 in the semifinals of the World Team Table Tennis Championships at Halmstad Arena in Halmstad, Sweden. There is no third-place match, and Korea will share the bronze with the loser of the other semifinal match between China and Hong Kong.
Team matches consist of five singles matches in a best-of-five format, with the first team to win three matches becoming the winner.
The Koreas played as one in table tennis for the first time since the 1991 world championships in Chiba, Japan, where the women's team, led by South Korean Olympic champion Hyun Jung-hwa and North Korean star Li Bun-hui, won the gold medal over the heavily favored China.
The Korean teams were only brought together in Sweden on Thursday, hours before they were scheduled to square off in the quarterfinals. With the blessing of the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), the Koreas advanced to the semifinals as one team.
The two sides agreed not to cut any of the five South Korean and four North Korean players for the semifinals. The South Korean players are: Jeon Ji-hee, Kim Ji-ho, Suh Hyo-won, Yang Ha-eun and Yoo Eun-chong. The North Koreans are Cha Hyo-sim, Choe Hyon-hwa, Kim Nam-hae and Kim Song-i.
Only three could actually play in the semifinals, and Korea sent out Yang (world No. 27), Jeon (No. 35) and Kim (No. 49), leaving Suh, the highest-ranked player at No. 12, on the bench.
The trio proved to be no match against Japan, who fielded three top-10 players: Kasumi Ishikawa (world No. 3), Miu Hirano (No. 6) and Mima Ito (No. 7).
Japan is the second-ranked women's team in the world behind only China. South Korea is No. 5 and North Korea is No. 22 on the women's team rankings.
Ito handily took the first singles match over Jeon 3-0. The 17-year-old Japanese claimed the first game 11-2 before Jeon knew what hit her. The South Korean bounced back to build a 5-2 lead in the second game, but Ito rallied to take it 11-8.
Ito overcame some unforced errors to win the third game 11-9 and gave Japan a 1-0 lead.
Ishikawa eked out a 3-2 win over Kim, who hung tough and pushed the Japanese to the limits.
In the thrilling deciding game, the two traded one match point after another before Ishikawa came out on top 16-14.
Kim defeated Ishikawa at the 2016 Summer Olympics en route to a surprise bronze medal, but the Japanese got the better of the North Korean this time.
In the clinching match, Hirano dispatched Yang 3-1. After losing the first two games, Yang rallied from a 5-2 deficit in the third game to win it 11-9. But Hirano closed out Yang 11-6 and sent Japan to the final.
All nine players will receive a medal, and both the South Korean and North Korean national flags will be raised in the medal ceremony. The athletes also competed in their respective national uniforms, since their teams hadn't prepared any joint clothing.
This is South Korean first women's world championship medal since bronze in Dortmund, Germany in 2012. North Korea won its second straight world bronze in the women's team event, after the 2016 event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The ITTF hailed the development as a "historic" occasion celebrated by other participating nations. Ryu Seung-min, the 2004 Olympic men's singles champion for South Korea who helped bring the teams together, said the joint team should help promote peace on the Korean Peninsula, especially in light of the historic summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week.
And following that summit, talks on assembling joint teams in multiple sports at this year's Asian Games gained traction. A joint declaration issued after their historic encounter stated that the two sides "agreed to demonstrate their collective wisdom, talents and solidarity by jointly participating in international sports events, such as the 2018 Asian Games."
The Korea Table Tennis Association (KTTA) is one of seven South Korean national sports federations to express interest in a joint team at the Asian Games, according to a preliminary survey of 40 sports bodies by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Table tennis is the first sport in which the two Koreas assembled a joint squad in an international competition. The Koreas also played as one at the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship, and they combined their women's hockey teams at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February this year.
The KTTA has finalized its proposal for a joint Korean team at the Asian Games, scheduled for Aug. 18-Sept. 2 in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. The KTTA is hoping both Koreas will retain their allotted roster spots -- two players each in the men's and women's singles, two teams each in the mixed doubles and five players in the team event -- even if they combine their squads. (Yonhap)