SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The South Korean men’s national soccer team’s path to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will include a crucial road match against North Korea, but it’s unclear whether a rare match between the Koreas in Pyongyang will materialize considering the political tension between the rivals.
With the Koreas, there’s never a separation between sports and politics. The North has previously refused to allow South Korean players to enter the country for World Cup qualifiers, forcing FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to relocate its home games to China.
Drawn in the same Asian qualifying group on Wednesday, the Koreas are scheduled for a match in the North on Oct. 15 and in the South on June 4 of next year. Group H also includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan and Sri Lanka.
The South Korean men’s national team last played at the North Korean capital in 1990 for a friendly match. Experts are mixed on whether North Korea would choose to host South Korea at home in October as inter-Korean relations have cooled significantly in past months amid stalled nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Some analysts say the inter-Korean qualifier in North Korea is likely to happen because of the country’s third-generation ruler Kim Jong Un, a brash young leader with a passion for sports, who has tried to present himself as an international statesman while actively pursuing diplomacy to leverage his nukes for security and economic benefits.
Wherever they take place, the matches between the Koreas are likely to be intense. The Korea Football Association, South Korean soccer’s governing body, anticipated South Korea’s two matches against North Korea and the road match against Lebanon to be critical in determining whether it makes it to Qatar.
While Korean athletes have jointly marched in ceremonies and competed as teammates in combined teams during the Olympics and other sporting events, World Cup qualifiers are all about national pride, with nearly every match considered a must-win.
“While previous sports exchanges between the Koreas were all about friendship and improving inter-Korean (political) relations, the South Korean (soccer) team will definitely try to win in Pyongyang,” said Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Korea University.
“South Korean people will get very angry if the national team fails to qualify for the World Cup … Maybe we will have the upper-edge (in Pyongyang) if we bring Son Heung-min,” he said, referring to the South Korean striker who plays for English Premier League club Tottenham.
Previously, the Korean men’s teams faced each other four times during the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The games were initially scheduled as home-and-away settings but North Korea balked at the idea of hoisting the South Korean flag and playing the South Korean anthem on its soil.
Following an intervention by FIFA, the Koreas eventually agreed to relocate North Korea’s home games to Shanghai, China. The matches resulted in three draws and one South Korean win before both Koreas qualified for South Africa.
South Korea has dominated the past 16 matches between the Koreas with seven wins, one loss and eight draws, according to KFA figures.
When relations were bad, sports often became an alternate political battlefield between the Koreas, with North Korean athletes and coaches rejecting handshakes with their South Korean competitors.
At the height of their Cold War rivalry, North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics held in South Korea’s capital. Relations dramatically worsened on the eve of the Seoul Olympics with the bombing of a South Korean passenger jet that killed all 115 aboard in November 1987. South Korea concluded the bombing as a North Korean attack aimed at scaring off Olympic athletes and visitors.
Things were much different between the Koreas when the Olympics came to South Korea for the second time in February of last year. North Korean leader Kim sent hundreds of officials, athletes and artists to the Pyeongchang Winter Games while initiating diplomacy with the South following years of tensions over its nuclear and missile tests.
The Koreas marched together during the opening ceremony and fielded their first-ever combined Olympic team in women’s ice hockey, which drew passionate crowds despite the team going 0-5 with a combined losing score of 28-2.
The positive atmosphere from the Olympic carried on to Asian Games in Indonesia last August, when the Koreas fielded combined teams in basketball, rowing and canoeing. That was weeks after South Korea sent its national basketball teams to Pyongyang for friendly basketball matches between mixed Korean teams named “Peace” and “Prosperity.”
If the World Cup qualifier in North Korea does take place in October, a potential venue would be Pyongyang’s massive May Day Stadium, where South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivered a speech to a 150,000-capacity crowd while visiting the North for his third summit with Kim.
Aside of issuing aspirational statements on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and stabilized peace, Kim and Moon during the summit also agreed that the Koreas would pursue a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics and also send more combined teams to the 2020 Summer Games and other major sports events.
But the relations between the rivals have sourced since the collapse of a nuclear summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in February over disagreements in exchanging sanctions relief and disarmament.
North Korea has since ignored South Korea’s calls to organize combined teams in field hockey, basketball, judo and other sports for the qualifying rounds for the Tokyo Olympics. It has also refused to send North Korean athletes to the ongoing world swimming championships in the South Korea city of Gwangju.
Cho Han Bum, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said a World Cup qualifying match in Pyongyang could possibly serve as an icebreaker between the Koreas and also provide an opportunity for North Korea to present itself internationally.
“It can help create a positive atmosphere for inter-Korean relations like the Pyeongchang Olympics did,” Cho said.
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