North Korea and South Korea Face-Off, On the Soccer Field.
So you believe sports is a path to peace? If so, Pyongyang was the wrong place to be Friday, as the two Koreas — technically at war for nearly 70 years — faced off in a rare soccer match.
On the field, Korean women fought to a 1-1 draw. But in the stands, more than 40,000 fans made clear the game didn’t reflect a thaw in deeply troubled inter-Korean relations.
There was the sound of tens of thousands of voices singing in praise of the North Korean fatherland. There were Pyongyang university students shouting slogans in near-perfect unison. There was a low rumble of discontent any time a South Korean player touched the ball.
And from the South Korean fans? Well, if there were any in Kim Il Sung stadium they were keeping very quiet.
Amid global nervousness that North Korea may be about to test its sixth nuclear device, and as more than 200,000 South Korean and American soldiers held their annual joint military exercises, a soccer match in Pyongyang — along with an inter-Korean ice hockey game held the same day in South Korea — wasn’t bringing brotherhood any time soon to the Korean Peninsula.
In Pyongyang, the underdog South Korean soccer players jumped with joy and hugged when the match ended, thrilled not to lose. The North Korean players lined up on the field to half-heartedly shake hands with their opponents, while tens of thousands of disappointed fans quietly filed out.
“Our players showed their strength, and their ability to attack the South Koreans,” university student Pak Yong Jin said as he left the stadium, carrying his briefcase in one hand and a cardboard bullhorn he’d used to shout encouragement in the other. Asked if he thought a tie may have been the best result, given so many decades of enmity, he politely made clear he thought the question was foolish.
“I have no feelings about the South Korean players,” he said. “I only wish our players had scored more goals.”
Saturday’s game, the first-ever official soccer faceoff in Pyongyang between the two Koreas, was one in a series of women’s Asian Football Confederation qualifying matches being held here in April.
In better days, there was fairly regular contact between the two Koreas — sporting events, academic discussions, talks about business and investment. But Seoul has suspended almost all civilian exchanges since a nuclear test by Pyongyang in January 2016, and amid a flurry of missile tests by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
While Korean female soccer players faced off in Pyongyang, Korean female hockey players competed on the ice in Gangneung, the South Korean port city that will host ice hockey games in next year’s Winter Olympics. The hockey game ended with the South beating the North 3-0.
But neither soccer nor hockey got much attention in South Korea, with news reports ahead of the games mostly limited to short dry stories, and social media largely quiet.
Unlike earlier occasions when Seoul permitted cross-border athlete visits, the South’s Unification Ministry made no effort to promote the April games as politically significant, with officials simply saying they respected the “regulations and procedures” of international sports.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the South’s indifference was a wasted opportunity to use sports as a diplomatic tool, even just to resume basic communications.
“There were instances in the past when South Korea used sports, along with humanitarian programs like the temporary meetings between war-separated relatives, to create a friendlier atmosphere for inter-Korean relations,” he said. “But this is no longer happening.”
Judging by the stands in Pyongyang, North Korea also was not trying to create a friendlier atmosphere.
If the cheering in the stadium Friday was clearly orchestrated, with thousands of fans clapping, shouting and singing in unison, it was also clearly heartfelt, with some openly crying with joy after North Korea scored its one goal.
As the cheering roared around her in that moment, South Korea’s goalie, Kim Jung-mi, stood dejected, staring at the sky.