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More than a game: when North Korea meets S. Korea at Olympic ping-pong

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But nowadays, a team made up of players from both Koreas – the North, deeply isolated, and the South, the world's No. 13 economy – would be an unthinkable feat. Cooperation between two governments is virtually nonexistent, and communication often comes through threats voiced in the media.

As a sign of how far inter-Korean relations have fallen, a scheduled reunion in Beijing for Mr. Hyun and Mr. Lee was cancelled in May. The two had planned to meet in Beijing, where Lee trains disabled North Korean athletes. The proposed reunion ended up coming around the time of North Korea’s failed missile launch and was nixed by South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.

“There were many reasons the meeting couldn’t be approved. They had asked to be allowed to meet on a personal level, but we had to consider the overall state of inter-Korean relations," said an official from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification in an interview.

Flags and paddles in London

The isolation of North Korea resulted in more than the usual amount of tension when, on July 26, the South Korean flag was displayed at the London Games as the North Korean women’s soccer team was being introduced.

North and South Korea have already faced off in table tennis once during this Olympics. In a men’s singles match on July 30, North Korea’s Kim Hyok-bong beat the South’s Joo Sae-hyuk 4 sets to 2. 

North Korea's poverty doesn’t stop it from trying to appear strong. Like other crumbling socialist states in the past, it still manages to invest in the training of athletes, some of whom are good enough to compete on a global stage at the Olympics.

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