[AN EYE ON SPORTS] Unified Korea Team Set for Table Tennis World Meet in April

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[AN EYE ON SPORTS] Unified Korea Team Set for Table Tennis World Meet in April

The unified inter-Korean table tennis team to compete at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, late next month will feature several players who sport lofty world rankings. Although Southerners outdo their northern contemporaries in rankings among both men and women players, the North has several stars as well.

The best Korean male player is South Korean Kim Taek-soo, 30, who won a gold medal at the 1998 Bangkok Asiad and is ranked ninth by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF). Other standouts are Oh Sang-eun, who is ranked 24th, and Ryu Seung-min, who plays on a pro team in Dusseldorf, Germany. The team is the first formed by the two Koreas since they fielded joint table tennis and youth soccer squads in 1991. Both sides will field 12 players each to the Osaka tournament.

The North has no men in the world's top 50; its highest-ranked male, Kim Sung-hui, is 68th. But its emphasis on its women's program has paid off, with the most visible result being Kim Hyon-hui, 21.

Kim Hyon-hui saw her world ranking leap from 44th to 20th this month after she won the women's singles title at the Qatar Open and was runner-up at the British Open in February. The North awarded her the national honor of "Meritorious Athlete" in 1997 after she came out of nowhere to place fifth at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She also helped her team to second-place finishes in the 1997 World Championships and the 1998 Asian Games. In addition to Kim Hyon-hui, five other North Korean women are ranked in the ITTF's top 100: Kim Hyang-mi (67th); Kim Yoon-mi (62nd); Wee Bok-soon (68th); Doo Jong-shil (76th) and Choe Young-lan (97th).

The South Korean women, however, also boast several stars of their own. Ryu Ji-hye is the highest-ranking Korean woman player in the world at eighth. She won the Olympic doubles bronze in Sydney last year with teammate Kim Moo-gyo (19th). The two also defeated the North Korean team of Kim Hyon-hui and Kim Hyang-mi to win the Qatar Open doubles title last month.

The team avoided a major bombshell over the weekend when Kim Taek-soo and two other players, Kim Bang-cheul and Ju Sae-hyeok, reported to training camp after holding out in a protest over the selection criteria of team members from the South.

The Korea Table Tennis Association had threatened to kick three players, including Kim, off the team, but press reports say an appeal to the national interest by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism convinced the players to change their minds.

The selection of Kim Taek-soo and Kim Sung-hui, who plays for a pro team in China, is their second on a unified team. Both played on the first in the 1991 championships in Chiba, Japan. Kim Taek-soo won a bronze in the men's singles and Kim Sung-hui and Lee Boon-hui the same in mixed doubles. This team is considerably weaker and has fewer members than the one in 1991. But the potential doubles combination of the South's Ryu and the North's Kim Hyon-hui could result in a title. Kim is a left-hander with a power drive and Ryu is a right-hander with a variety of attacks.

Equally enthusiastic over the unified team is ITTF President Adham Shahara, who visited the North last summer to discuss the joint team. His federation also provided financial support to help a North Korean team play in pro tour events in England and Qatar.

"We really hope that this time we could be an example to follow for other sports, so that the two Koreas will continue playing together," he said.

by D. Peter Kim

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