Seoul - South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-Ju, who found herself
in the international spotlight after taking a selfie with a North Korean
competitor in Rio, said Friday she was surprised by the extraordinary response
to such a simple act.
A snapshot of Lee and North Korea's Hong Un-Jong posing for
the selfie on Lee's phone swiftly went viral on Twitter, with many hailing the
image as 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
In a radio interview with South Korean broadcaster KBS on
Friday, the 17-year-old said the decision to grab a selfie with Hong had been
"I saw her and asked to take a picture together as a
souvenir," Lee said.
"I didn't expect such a huge reaction so I'm still awed
by that," she added.
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Lee was only nine when Hong -- 10 years her senior -- became
the first female North Korean gymnast to win an Olympic gold medal in Beijing
The two had never met before Rio, but Lee 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 technically remain 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.
The international sporting arena 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 due to heightened tensions
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," Lee 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.
Lee was eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the
gymnastics competition in Rio and said she hadn't spoken to Hong since.For
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