South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju, who found herself in the international spotlight after taking a selfie with a North Korean competitor in Rio, says she is surprised that the pic has become such big news.
A snapshot of Lee and North Korea’s Hong Un-jong posing for the selfie quickly went viral on Twitter, with many saying the image is a perfect illustration of the Olympic spirit. The photo has been tweeted and shared hundreds of thousands of times, with the likes of IOC president Thomas Bach describing it as a “great gesture”.
In a radio interview with South Korean broadcaster KBS on Friday, Eun-ju, 17, said the decision to grab a selfie with Hong had been totally spontaneous.
“I saw her and asked to take a picture together as a souvenir,” Eun-ju said. “I didn’t expect such a huge reaction so I’m still awed by that.”
Eun-ju was only nine when Hong – 10 years her senior – became the first female North Korean gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008.
The two had never met before Rio, but Eun-ju said she had been impressed watching Hong compete on television.
The photo of the two athletes resonated at a time of growing tension between North and South Korea who are technically still at war, since the 1950-53 Korean war concluded without a formal peace treaty.
Civilian communication between the two countries is almost non-existent and South Koreans are forbidden from travelling to the North without prior permission.
International sport offers one of the rare opportunities for some North-South bonding, although the level of interaction is usually dictated by the prevailing state of relations.
In the past, the two nations have fielded joint teams for some sporting events and they marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 summer Olympics.
That initiative ended in Beijing. as tensions grew on the divided Korean peninsula.
“I don’t really know about politics, but I don’t think we have a terrible relationship with North Korea,” Eun-ju said in another interview with local media.
“We mingle and say hello with athletes from other countries, so why can’t we [North and South Koreans] do that?” she asked.
Eun-ju was eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the gymnastics competition in Rio and said she hadn’t spoken to Hong since.