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Chill Between Koreas Raises Cost of World Cup for North

  • Kurt Achin

The start of soccer's World Cup is exactly a month away, and both Koreas are sending teams to South Africa to compete. A chill in relations, and suspicions of a North Korean role in the sinking of a South Korean ship, could make football season more expensive in Pyongyang.

Cheers resounded through Seoul back in 2006, when tens of thousands gathered downtown to watch World Cup matches on giant outdoor television screens.

There was also reason to cheer north of the border that divides the Korean peninsula. As part of a policy to improve ties with Pyongyang, the South Korean government picked up the bill for national broadcasters to relay live transmissions of the matches into the North.

Since then, North Korea has conducted two nuclear weapons tests and shot a South Korean tourist in the back. Many here also suspect the North may have attacked a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors.

South Korean broadcaster SBS owns the Korean peninsula rights to broadcast the World Cup. A senior SBS executive, Yang Chul-hoon says even before the sinking of the Cheonan, there was a decision that North Korea would not get the World Cup free this time.

He says they paid a lot of money to get these broadcast rights, and they want to get as much money as possible from the North Korean side through negotiations. He adds it is not as though they decided to stop providing it free because of the Cheonan incident alone.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to office in 2008 demanding that aid and investment in the North be reciprocated with progress in ending Pyongyang's nuclear-weapons programs. That was a stark shift from the approach of his two predecessors, who transferred billions of dollars in South Korean public resources to the North with few strings attached.

It is in the context of that political shift that Yang, from SBS, puts his network's decision to bargain hard with the North.

He says the current government's position is firm that there will be no unconditional and free support to North Korea. At SBS, he says, they are clear on that point as well.

Local elections will be held in South Korea in a few weeks, and political analysts say giving free football screenings to the North so soon after the Cheonan sinking could put leaders here in a bad position. Michael Breen is a public relations consultant and author on North Korea.

"Now that the North is the most likely culprit in the sinking of the ship ... there is a lot of anger," said Breen. "And right now, very little delusion about brotherhood and all of that. So, why should we give them anything - let alone, you know, a free World Cup feed. There is just no appetite for it."

Negotiations on a deal to broadcast the World Cup into North Korea are expected to continue as late as the first week of next month.

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