Commentary: Whose idea was it to mix North Korea diplomacy and football?

Commentary: Whose idea was it to mix North Korea diplomacy and football?

The World Cup qualifying match between North Korean and South Korea hosted by Pyongyang was a disaster, but the bigger travesty was that football authorities allowed it to be held under such appalling conditions, says John Duerden.

2022 World Cup Qualifier Round 3 - Group H - South Korea v North Korea
South Korea's Hwang Hee-chan in action. Picture taken on Oct 15, 2019. (Photo: Yonhap via REUTERS)

SINGAPORE: The meeting between North Korea and South Korea in Pyongyang last week was not only a vital qualifier for the 2022 World Cup.

It was also a chance for both countries to show that a joint bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup was not only feasible but desirable.

On both counts, however, the game missed its mark sorely.

In March, FIFA suggested that the two countries, technically still at war, hold the once-in-four-years global tournament together.

Now, the world governing body may soon be receiving an official complaint from the Korea Football Association (KFA), South Korea’s official football governing body, about what happened before, during and after those 90 minutes at the Kim Il Sung Stadium that ended in a scoreless 0-0.

At least, the game actually took place in Pyongyang, only a second meeting in North Korea and a first ever competitive game there. (The 1990 friendly remains DPRK’s only win in what is now 18 meetings between the two countries.)

Most recently, there had been four qualification games ahead of the 2010 World Cup with two in Seoul and the other two in Shanghai.

Consequently, for South Korea to line-up at the Kim Il Sung Stadium, hear their national anthem and see their national flag in the heart of North Korea’s capital must have been historically symbolic and deeply meaningful.

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Unfortunately, it was probably the only positive sports fans and diplomats can take away from the game.

South Korean football team in North Korea World Cup
This handout photo taken on Oct 14, 2019 by the Korea Football Association (KFA) shows South Korean national football team players warming up during a training session at the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang. (Photo: AFP/KFA)


To be fair, some issues arising from holding a prestigious football match in the hermit kingdom were well expected, many of which were clearly a result of differing objectives held by Seoul and Pyongyang.

The KFA’s idealistic request for players and officials to make the 195km journey direct from Seoul to Pyongyang by bus or plane was ignored, and the Taeguk Warriors had to travel via Beijing. They had to obey North Korea’s usual restrictions and leave mobile phones with the South Korean embassy.

To head directly north across the Demilitarised Zone that divides the neighbours, would have needed the agreement, uncertain even after long discussions, of both governments.

But more disturbing were the eyebrow-raising constraints placed on the match, which blatantly ran afoul of FIFA regulations. 

There was a media blackout on the game. The KFA’s suggested cheering squad were not given visas. The team was accompanied only by coaches and staff.

Merely hosting the game in Pyongyang is insufficient in upholding the ethos of sporting competition, which should also include welcoming journalists and opening up the match to the world.

It is a mark of low expectations when it comes to North Korea that such conditions can be accepted and concerns of FIFA World Cup violations set aside for larger but nebulous geopolitical interests, in the veiled hopes that North Korean leaders can be socialised to international norms of behaviour and the benefits of engagement with the world.

Empty stands during the World Cup 2022 Qualifying football match between South and North Korea
This handout photo taken on Oct 15, 2019 by the Korea Football Association (KFA) shows empty stands during the World Cup 2022 Qualifying Asian zone Group H football match between South Korea (in white) and North Korea at Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang. (Photo: Handout/Korea Football Association/AFP)

On the one hand, organisers may have accepted lower expectations for the game, with the assumption that if the trip had been a success, there would be a next time and then, perhaps Pyongyang would be willing to do more.


But reality makes that objective now look like wishful thinking. The general levels of hostility during what should have been a demonstration of sportsmanship and sporting values like courage, honour and resilience, shocked the South Korean players.

On the pitch, there was obscene language and rough treatment, with North Korean players using arms and legs to knock out opponents while jostling for balls in the air. 

Speaking to reporters after the match, Son Heung-min, the biggest star in Asian football and Tottenham star forward, said that he was just relieved to get home without a serious injury.

Off the pitch, the treatment was no better. Choi Young-il, KFA vice-president, said the hosts treated the game “like a war” with the travelling party confined to the hotel, with no other guests and without Internet access.

Son Heung-min South Korea vs North
South Korea's Son Heung-min (R) and his teammates walking into the pitch prior to match between South Korea and North Korea at Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang on Oct 15, 2019. (Photo: AFP via Korea Football Association) 

If the visitors were inconvenienced, fans at home were even more disappointed. At this potentially exciting second round of World Cup qualification (with 40 teams trying to progress to the third stage of 12), home associations have live broadcast rights. Yet, North Korea decided not to sell the game to South Korea’s networks.

The 10 million or so who usually tune in to watch the national team below the 38th parallel were reliant on social media updates from KFA officials in Pyongyang, who reported just the yellow cards and substitutions, as well as the occasional video update from the watching Swedish ambassador. 

It was the first time since 1984 since South Korean fans had not been able to watch their national team in World Cup qualification action.

It was farcical. Not only that, the game was played in an empty stadium as North Korea decided not to allow fans inside, possibly for fear of losing and embarrassing leader Kim Jong Un. South Korean players even said upon their return to Seoul that it seemed nobody in North Korea knew there was a game going on.


In football, there are two sides to every yellow card story. But how this match turned out is certainly not what FIFA had anticipated.

Perhaps when it comes to the two Koreas, sports diplomacy does not work.

What could have been a testimony that more unites than separates the two countries ended with a game that left a bitter taste in the mouths of South Korea’s players and talk of revenge in June’s return match in Seoul.

READ: Commentary: Purges and other unverified reports on North Korea

North Korea head coach Jorn Andersen says of Pyongyang 'it's a very quiet city, it's
File photo of former North Korea head coach Jorn Andersen. (Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

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Much was made of the two Koreas marching together at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Much was made of the joint ice hockey team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang but nothing has really shifted in Korean Peninsula relations.

All the bending over backwards just confirms Pyongyang’s longstanding view that it can get away with bad behaviour and unilateral action.

North Korea had hosted football friendlies with other countries in the past, with limited media coverage and spectators watching. This time around, it chose to close off the match with South Korea and flout FIFA regulations for World Cup – and got away with doing so.

Still, the events of the past week do not prove that a joint bid for the 2023 Women’s World Cup is out of the question though it is certainly not a good look.

But it should signal to KFA and FIFA that if there is to be a partnership with North Korea in the arena of sports, it has to be a real partnership.

READ: Commentary: As North Korea fires missiles again, diplomacy teeters on the brink of collapse

North Korea has to live up to the established responsibilities of a sporting federation to meet expected requirements that embody and uphold the values of sport. There can be no more treating the country as a special case and dishing out special dispensation.

Any country that wants to be part of the most international of team sports has to abide by the rules that others follow. That principle should also apply to North Korea.

John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of 3 books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).

Source: CNA/sl