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Rivals Japan And South Korea Face Off At Olympics Amid Chilly Ties

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Nao Kodaira of Japan hugs Sang-Hwa Lee of Korea after Kodaira beat Lee in the 500m speed skating finals. The two have finished within fractions of a second of each other for years and are constantly compared to one another.

When it comes to global politics off the rink — most of the spotlight has fallen on North and South Korea. But just as the two Koreas have been making nice, South Korea and Japan have gotten chilly.

On the ice — Nao Kodaira of Japan and two-time gold medalist Lee Sang-hwa of Korea are the world's best at the 500 meter speed skate. They have finished within fractions of a second of each other for years and are constantly compared to one another. Sunday's much-watched showdown between the two was packed with extra meaning because their countries compete so fiercely, too.

"Wherever they're competing there's certainly the unresolved grievances of the colonial era [that] loom large," says Jeff Kingston, the Asia Studies chair at Tokyo's Temple University and author of Nationalism in Asia. He says Japan's brutal colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 is never quite history for South Koreans. In sports, "Beating Japan is certainly on the minds of South Koreans, and not losing to South Korea is on the minds of the Japanese."

For fans from these neighboring countries with a troubled past, the Sunday speed skating matchup was the one to watch. Hikaru Takamizawa came to the games from Osaka to catch it.

"We have to win Korea always," Takamizawa says. He adds the rivalry was ingrained around the same time he learned how to read. "I was 6 or 7 years old."

The jostling in sports mirrors what's happening with the larger Japan-South Korea relationship lately. Japanese diplomats filed a formal complaint against its neighbor after South Korea put tiny contested islands (which in the U.S. are called the Liancourt Rocks) on the white unified Korea flag used during these games. The North Korea issue is coming between the two countries leaders too — resulting in a tense meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, over military drills on the peninsula.

"Moon more or less told him to butt out, this is a domestic matter and he would make the call," Kingston said, of the meeting. He describes the relationship as somewhere between cold and frosty right now.

"So it was amazing to me that the NBC commentator at the Opening Ceremony decided it was just the right time to remind everybody," Kingston said.

If you missed the mistake — NBC's commentator Joshua Ramos said, "Every Korean will tell you that Japan is cultural, and technological and economic example, has been so important to their own transformation." It led to a near immediate online petition and NBC's swift apology.

"First of all it's untrue," Kingston says. "And the timing of it, when South Korea is hosting the Olympics, it was just astounding cluelessness."

Here in the region, the rivalry is so internalized that it brought North and South Korea together. The coach of the unified Korean hockey team said success for her team — would mean beating Japan. The team lost — but won over Koreans by scoring their only goal of the Olympics when it mattered — against Japan.

In the speed skating showdown — Japan's Kodaira edged out Korea's Lee by .39 of a second, winning a gold to Lee's silver. Moments after, Kodaira skated over to a shaken and sobbing Lee, and pulled her close. They skated side-by-side, draped in their respective countries' flags. A rare sight, given the state of Japan-South Korea relations lately.

Seoul producer Se Eun Gong and NPR editor Russell Lewis contributed to this story.

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