[Writer's Choice] South Korea and North Korea Potential World Cup Qualifier Match

Jay Yim, July 19, 2019, 2:12 p.m.

South and North Korea will meet on the road to qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. However, it seems unclear whether or not a rare match between the two will occur considering their current political tension.

There is never a seperation between sports and politics when it comes to the two Koreas. The North previously has denied South Korean players access into the country for World Cup qualifiers, forcing FIFA to relocate its home games to China.

The two Koreas were drawn in the same groups for qualifying rounds on Wednesday, which they are scheduled to meet for their first match on Oct 15 in North Korea and their following match in South Korea on June 4, 2020. Group H also includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan, and Sri Lanka.

South Korea last played at Pyongyang in 1990 for a friendly match. Experts have mixed feelings on whether North Korea will choose to host South Korea at home in October as inter-Korean relations in thr past months have calmed significantly amid a stalled nuclear agreement between the US and the North.

Some analysts have said the inter-Korean qualifier in North Korea is likely to happen because Kim Jong Un, who is a third-generation leader, has a passion for sports and attempted to present himself as an international statesman while activiely pursuing diplomacy to bring leverage to his nuclear weapons for security and economic benefits.

Wherever the matches take place, they will be intense.

The Korea Football Association, which is South Korea's governing body for their team, has anticipated that their coming two matches against North Korea and the road match against Lebanon will be crucial in determining their spot in Qatar.

World Cup qualifiers are all about national pride, unlike during the Olympics when they march together.

 Nam Sung-wook, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Korea University, said, “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.” 

“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 star striker who plays for English Premier League club Tottenham.

South and North Korea previously met four times during the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The games were initially scheduled to be home and away but North Korea did not like the idea of the South Korean flag being hoisted and the anthem being played on its soil.

When relations were at their possible worst, North Korean atheletes and coaches refused to shake hands with their South Korean counterparts.

However, during the Pyeongchang Winter Games, things were much different as Kim Jong Un sent hundreds of officials, athletes, and artists to the games while initiating diplomacy with South Korea.

The two Koreas marched together during the opening ceremony and put together their first combined Olympic team in women's ice hockey. Although the team had lost many of their games, the feedback was positive.

Due to the positive atmosphere from the games, they carried it on to the Asian Games in Indonesia, when the Koreas combined their basketball, rowing and canoeing teams.

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 last September.

In addition to pursuing a denuclearized Korean Peninsula and stabilized peace, Kim and Moon agreed during their summit meeting that the Koreas will pursue a joint bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics and send combined teams to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and other major sports events.

However, recently relations between the two countries have soured since the failed summit between the U.S. and North Korea in February over disagreements of disarmament in exchange for the lifitng of sanctions.

Since, the North has ignored South Korea's calls to organize joint teams in field hockey, basketball, judo and other sports for the qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics. Furthermore, the North has refused to send athletes to the ongoing world swimming championships in Gwangju.

An analyst, Cho Han Bum, from Seoul's Korea Insitute for National Unification, said that a World Cup quailfying match at Pyongyang could possibly break the ice between both Koreas and provide an opportunity for North Korea to present itself internationally.

Cho said, "it can help create a positive atmosphere for inter-Korean relations like the Pyeongchang Olympics did."

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