Japan Defeats North Korea in Politically-Charged World Cup Qualifier

Host Japan, with a late goal in injury time in the second half, defeated a North Korean team, mainly composed of army players, 2-1 in an Asian Group B qualifier for soccer's World Cup. Japanese officials took extraordinary security measures inside and around the stadium amid worries that any clashes between rival supporters could trigger an international incident.

The 60,000 spectators in Saitama Stadium were boisterous but well behaved.

Japan said it was concerned that North Korea, with which it has no diplomatic relations, would make a political issue out of any incidents that might occur off the field. There was no trouble reported between the Japanese supporters and the 5,000 North Korean fans, who were bussed to and from the stadium outside Tokyo.

The North Koreans were segregated in a special section with 1,000 seats on each side of them kept empty. They waved giant North Korean flags throughout the game.

Some 3,000 police and security guards were in and around the stadium - 20 times the usual number seen at professional soccer games in Japan.

Masashi Oguro, making only his second appearance with the Japan national team, scored his country's go-ahead goal just at the end of regulation time.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was among those expressing his joy after the game.

Mr. Koizumi says he was relieved to see the last-minute goal. He adds he doesn't know how Japan will perform in future qualifiers but he hopes they are prepared to do their best.

Mitsuo Ogasawara had put Japan in front with a free kick a mere four minutes into game. Japan stayed ahead until North Korean substitute Nam Song Chol scored a goal, just after the hour mark to even the score following a sluggish North Korean performance earlier.

After the game Japanese players praised their opponents, saying they gave the hosts a severe test.

North Korea coach Yun Jong Su said his players were disappointed with the outcome but relieved that the game was played in a friendly atmosphere.

North Korea will have a chance to avenge its defeat when it hosts Japan June 8th in Pyongyang's 150,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium. The North Koreans are pursuing their first appearance at the World Cup since a 1966 surprise run to the quarterfinals.

The game was played one day after the Japanese government received a petition from five million of its citizens calling on the country to impose economic sanctions on North Korea.

Japanese anger towards Pyongyang has been rising amid frustration over the failure of the two countries to resolve a decades-old abduction issue. Japan has repeatedly called on North Korea to reveal all it knows about the fate of Japanese kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s by North Korean agents.

North Korea's official media on Wednesday called Japan a "wicked trickster" for making public a photo of two alleged Japanese abductees who later turned out to be Koreans.

The communist state has previously said it would regard any sanctions imposed by Tokyo as a "declaration of war."

Some in Japan's government are reluctant to impose sanctions, fearing that would give North Korea another excuse not to return to six-party talks about its suspected nuclear weapons programs.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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