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Pingpong diplomacy: How two Koreans united for table tennis -- and haven't met since

South Korean Hyun Jung-hwa represented a joint Korea team at the 1991 table tennis world championships, alongside Li Pun Hui of North Korea. "I believe sports can have political influence," says Hyun. "I still believe that." Jun Michael Park for ESPN

SIHEUNG, South Korea -- They were rivals when they first met, she said. Bitter adversaries. Two champions from nations who were -- and still are -- at war. Yet somehow they left each other having forged something deeper.

That is why Hyun Jung-hwa will not watch Friday night's opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics in the same way as the rest of the world, will not see the delegations from South and North Korea marching together as some type of extraordinary curiosity. She will not look at the integrated Korea women's hockey team competing at these Olympics as a political novelty.

She can't. Because she lived it.

Twenty-seven years before this latest unification-through-sports effort could be orchestrated beneath the klieg lights of a Winter Games, Hyun -- a table tennis superstar -- became the first-ever South Korean athlete to be teamed with a North Korean in international competition. She and Li Pun Hui, a decorated champion from the North, were hastily thrust together by their governments for the 1991 World Championships in Chiba, Japan.

It was, to borrow a phrase, a bit of "pingpong diplomacy," and during an interview on Thursday, Hyun shrugged as she considered the hockey version that will play out over the next few weeks. "I believe sports can have political influence," she said. "I still believe that."

It is not hard to see why. Whatever happens with this joint hockey team, Hyun's story will forever be legendary in the Koreas. A table tennis prodigy, she was watching the evening news with her parents one night nearly three decades ago when she saw a report that she, at age 20, and Li, at 22, would become the first athletes from opposite sides of the DMZ to team up.

"My response was, 'Why? Why would anyone want to do this?'" she said. "I was too young to know what it could mean. ... But I soon felt the pressure."

The athletes spent a month training together in Japan before the tournament, and at first, their relationship was strained. It had been just four years since North Korea blew up a South Korean airplane in an attempt to scare people from coming to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and the historical tension between the countries was impossible to ignore. The Koreas fought a war between 1950 and 1953 and, technically, the combat only halted because of a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the Korean Peninsula in a perpetual state of unrest.

Hyun and Li also knew each of each other from having competed at previous tournaments, and Hyun said she found Li to be "very, very cold". In an effort to be respectful, Hyun said, she began using the Korean word for "elder sister" to refer to Li, hoping that might make Li feel more friendly to her.

It didn't work; Li just replied by calling Hyun "comrade."

In time, however, there came the inevitable thaw. Hyun and Li were both so fascinated by the other's country that cursory conversations about daily routines or customs soon became long talks about boyfriends and family and money. There were jokes, too. Once, Hyun gestured to a pin that Li often wore depicting the notorious North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and deadpanned, "Who is that?"

"She didn't like that one," Hyun said. "But at some point, she began calling me by my name."

In an interview with The Associated Press in 2012, Li said the pair's talks at mealtimes formed the foundation of their relationship, explaining that, "We shared the same food -- and our feelings."

Their skills, it turned out, were simpatico, too. Hyun is right-handed and Li hits with her left, and they worked out a strategy that took them on a surprising run through the tournament. Playing doubles together, they led the Korean team to an upset victory over the top-rated Chinese team, setting off a celebration that Hyun felt was far different than even the one she experienced after winning the gold medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Hyun wept, she said, because it seemed like her win with Li meant so much to so many. "I don't know how to say it -- I felt something in my heart," she said.

On their last night in Japan, Hyun and Li struggled with the right way to say goodbye. They could not exchange phone numbers or addresses, and did not know when they might be able to spend time together again.

Li gave Hyun a small souvenir painting of Pyongyang; Hyun gave Li a ring and asked her, "Remember me?"

Li accepted the ring and told Hyun, "I will remember you always."

Other than a passing greeting at the next world championships, Hyun and Li have not seen each other since. Their story was made into a movie, "At One," and there had been hope that perhaps they would meet at a premiere for the film in China but it did not happen.

Li now works with North Korea's disabled athletes, and there was a possibility that she and Hyun might connect in London in 2012 -- when the Summer Games and Paralympics were held about a month apart -- but with Korean relations at their nadir at that time, it didn't happen.

Now, with the Koreas again united under the guise of sports, Hyun -- while admitting she is disappointed that unification is still a subject being debated mostly in the abstract -- remains optimistic that meaningful change lies in the future.

She is hopeful, too, that she might finally see her friend once more. Li is expected to be part of a North Korean delegation that will come to Pyeongchang for the Paralympics next month and, if she does, Hyun said she expects they will finally have their long-awaited reunion.

What will she say to Li?

Hyun smiled as she thought of foe-turned-friend with whom she once made history.

"I will tell her that I've missed her," she said.

Jun Michael Park contributed to this article.