Seungyuop Lee, who emerged as an international force with his long ball display at the 2006 World Baseball Classic, broke the scoreless tie with a two-run homer off reliever Hitoki Iwase -- the same pitcher who gave up all four runs in the 11th inning of Japan's 4-2 loss to the United States two nights earlier.
Yongkyu Lee caught the game's final out in right and fell to his knees, and suddenly there was a celebration scene, as Korea remained perfect in this tournament of strong competition. Korea now awaits the winner of the U.S.-Cuba semifinal, which begins at 6 p.m. local time (6 a.m. ET) on the same field.
Japan will play the loser of the U.S.-Cuba game at 10:30 a.m. local time on Saturday to determine the bronze medal. The winner of Friday night's game will meet Korea at 6 p.m. on Saturday to decide who gets gold and who gets silver.
"I still hope our good luck can carry us to the end of this tournament," Korea manager Kyungmoon Kim said. "I think both (U.S. and Cuba) have the advantages. For example, the USA pitchers are very good, and on the whole Cuba is very strong. I can't choose -- all I can do is tell my players to keep showing the will to win."
A reporter after the game told Kim that "Team Japan always thinks Team Korea is weaker," and that Japan wanted the Koreans in the semifinal and "underestimated" them. Kim gave this response through two interpreters:
"The game of (Thursday), between U.S. and Japan, I watched with my players in the crowd, and in comparison we are weaker than Japan in skills and overall talent. But Team Japan underestimated our strength. I don't think they chose to play us in the semifinals, though.
"If we lost the game today, then we would have huge pressure tomorrow. I can be very relaxed here. The players will be relaxed for the final game."
Korean outfielder Jinyoung Lee added, "(Saturday) we are going to prove that we can play a world-class game and we will perform even better than today."
Japan, one of the favorites to win the gold, is a disappointing 4-4 overall in this competition. Infielder Shinya Miyamoto, Japan's team captain, said in the postgame news conference that Korea's will was "stronger."
"Before the game, all the fans expected us to win the gold medal for baseball and I'm very sorry we didn't win it," Miyamoto said. "I'm also sorry that for the second time at the Olympics we were stopped in our steps in the semifinals."
He was referring to the loss to Australia at Athens in 2004.
"We have not come to specific reasons so I can't give an answer," Miyamoto said. "But in the top of the ninth inning when the Korean outfielder caught the fly ball, I could feel their excitement. We all came for the gold medal, but maybe the Korean team has a stronger desire to win a gold medal. I think maybe that is one of the reasons."
Korea opened the tournament with a thrilling 8-7 victory over the U.S., winning it with the walk-off sacrifice fly by Jongwook Lee in the ninth. Korea was 7-0 in the preliminaries and went 2-0 in the this tournament against Japan. It also handed Cuba its only loss of the Olympics. The U.S. starts medal play with a 5-2 record.
Japan had led the entire game by manufacturing runs and capitalizing on Korean miscues, taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh. But Daeho Lee walked to start that inning, was singled to third by Youngmin Ko, and, after a strikeout, scored on pinch-hitter Jinyoung Lee's single to right.
"I was a little worried when the Japan team took the lead early," Korea's manager said. "But as manager, I have to keep confident. If I give up the will to fight, it will affect my players. I think it showed confidence in my players. In the third inning, we stopped them, and we started to control the game."
One inescapable fact may haunt Japan after this tournament. It woefully underutilized ace right-hander Yu Darvish -- considered by many to have much greater potential than Daisuke Matsuzaka. He started in the opener loss against Cuba, and was never seen from again until pitching two innings against the U.S. in the seventh game -- just to get some work in. That would keep him fresh for a possible gold medal game. Now he presumably will be used in the effort to win a bronze.
When asked why he stayed with Iwase -- especially after Yongku Lee's leadoff single in the eighth, Japan manager Senichi Hoshino said: "This is my way of doing business. And in doing so, I just did the Korean team a favor."
As for his big two-run homer, Lee said: "It was a very important game and I am very happy to hit a home run. I treasure every chance and never give up. Actually, I was just looking for a base hit but it turned out to be a home run."
Hoshino said it is "meaningless" to talk about reasons for the loss to Korea at this point. Interestingly, the subject about overall quality of play between Japan and Korea was raised in the postgame news conference, and addressed by both managers. A Japanese reporter said in his question to Hoshino: "We were beaten by Korea twice in this tournament but it will not change the fact that Japanese baseball is still stronger."
"I don't know what you are talking about," Hoshino replied, huffily. "Please don't start saying Koreans are weaker than us. Maybe next time we should not say that."
Korea's manager -- whose turn at the dais was delayed as many members of the massive Japanese media contingent showed him little respect by lingering to talk after Hoshino and Miyamoto left the room -- did his best to shut down that subject in his first response.
"Of course, I am very happy. In the beginning of the game, our performance of fielders was not consistent, and that cost us two runs. Afterwards, we caught up. Today, the victory doesn't mean that Team Korea is much stronger than Team Japan. We are of good luck today."
Korea continues to grow as a global baseball force. It lost to Japan in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic, with Japan winning the inaugural tournament.
The decision thus ensures that there will be no repeat of what happened in the women's softball final. Japan shocked the U.S. women in that game on Thursday night, with the following American players in attendance: Taylor Teagarden, Jeff Stevens, Jayson Nix, Dexter Fowler and Lou Marson.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.