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July 19, 2013

N. Korean Footballers Make Rare Seoul Visit

by Daniel Schearf

North Korea's women's football (soccer) team is on a rare visit to Seoul to play in the East Asia Cup and on July 21 will take on rival South Korea. While relations between the teams remain tense, analysts say the friendly sports exchange could help improve relations on the peninsula.
 
This is only the second time the North's women's team has competed in South Korea in the East Asia Cup tournament. The last time was in 2005 when Seoul hosted, and won, the first women's games organized by the East Asian Football Federation.
 
Technical coach of the North Korean team, Kim Kwang Woong, declined to comment on whether its participation would help inter-Korean relations, telling journalists in Seoul Friday they were just there to play football, but pleased to take part in the tournament.
 
"[We] will participate in the matches with techniques, tactics and spirit that [we] have built," he said, adding that he has strong trust in the team's prospects for victory.
 
The competition follows months of military tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul. The two countries also remain deadlocked in negotiations over reopening their joint industrial complex, which has been closed since April.
 
Professor Chung Young-chul, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Seogang University, says capital's welcoming of the North Korean football team promotes friendlier inter-Korean relations.
 
"In the past, sports and cultural exchanges have contributed to easing political tensions between the two Koreas and create an atmosphere to hold political talks," he said.
 
Negotiators from North and South Korea on Monday will enter the Kaesong factory park for a fifth round of marathon negotiations. Pyongyang wants operations to resume immediately but Seoul demands guarantees the North will never again unilaterally shut it down.
 
While the football match between the two Koreas will be heated, analyst Chung Young-chul says that based on past tournaments, South Koreans are likely to cheer for the North when they play other teams.
 
"So, if North Korea competes with Japan or China at these games, there will be many South Koreans who will cheer for North Korea," he said, adding that this cheering will strengthen compatriotism between the two Koreas.
 
"But it does not mean that South Koreans politically support North Korea," he said.
 
A mutual nationalism against tournament leader Japan, in particular, is expected to unify Korean fans, as historic grievances against Japan's 35-year colonization of Korea are felt on both sides of the divided peninsula.
 
The North Korean team plays Japan on July 25 and China on July 27.
 
International sports have in the past helped bring the two Koreas together in a show of friendly unity. They have participated together in the opening ceremonies of some past Olympics, including under a special flag at the 2000 Sydney games.
 
More recently, the North and South Korean teams remained separated at the Olympics as political tensions between the countries increased.
 
At last year's London Olympics the North Korean women's soccer team walked away in protest after the South Korea flag was mistakenly displayed next to their photos.
 
Pyongyang and Seoul have held off-and-on discussions about one day fielding a joint team, but have so far failed to agree on a way to make it happen.

VOA Seoul Bureau Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.