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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 272 (July 25, 2013)

2013/07/25 10:31

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korean Female Footballers in Seoul amid Strained Inter-Korean Relations

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- North Korean female football players flew to Seoul on July 18 to participate in an international competition here amid strained relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The North's team, comprised of 18 officials and 21 players, arrived at Incheon International Airport from Beijing at 10:53 p.m. to compete in the Women's East Asian Cup scheduled for July 20-27.

The women's football team is the first North Korean team to visit South Korea in more than four years. The last time any North Korean sports team played in South Korea was on April 1, 2009 when the two Koreas clashed in Seoul for an Asian qualifier for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. South Korea prevailed 1-0.

In March 2008, 17 North Korean wrestlers traveled to the South's Jeju Island for the Asian championships, which also served as the continental qualification for the Beijing Olympics.

The North Korean women's football team is here for the first time in eight years since the 2005 East Asian Cup.

The North Korean participation has added a political dimension to the tournament. The two Koreas have been trying to reduce tensions on the divided peninsula, as officials have engaged in talks aimed at reopening a joint industrial complex north of the border that has remained closed since April.

At a pre-tournament news conference in Seoul on July 19, however, Kim Kwang-ung, an assistant coach for the North, refused to answer questions about inter-Korean ties. Earlier, Kim was asked if he felt his team's participation would help promote sports exchanges between the Koreas. The coach said it was "difficult" for him to answer the question and also said the players are only here to play football.

In the South-North showdown at the Seoul World Cup Stadium on July 21, the North Koreans came from behind to beat their Southern rivals 2-1. The North's state media reported the victory in an unusually swift manner. The (North) Korean Central News Agency reported the news at 8:55 p.m., less than an hour after the closing whistle.

Radio Pyongyang and the (North) Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station, which airs TV programs nationwide, followed the news agency. It was very unusual that North Korean media reported the results of a sports event held in foreign countries so swiftly.

The Central TV, in particular, briefly suspended regular programs to report the game results for one minute from 10:15 p.m., airing highlights of the game. The North Koreans will face Japan on July 25 and China on July 27.

The North Korean participation was realized as the South Korean government approved on July 5 the participation by the North Korean team in the tournament which was organized by the East Asian Football Federation (EAFF).

The move comes as the two Koreas are trying to ease tensions on their divided peninsula. Officials of both sides held a rare meeting on July 6 to discuss a joint industrial complex in the North's border city of Kaesong that has remained shut down for nearly three months. The Koreas remain technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. Inter-Korean tensions reached their peak when North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in defiance of international warnings in February this year.

A South Korean government spokesman said they allowed the North Korean team's participation, as the competition is an international sports event and it is a non-political issue.

The government also allowed the entry of a cheering group from Japan composed of 33 Koreans living in the country holding North Korean nationality to root for the North Korean women's team. As a legacy of Japan's colonization of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century, about 600,000 Koreans are living in Japan as aliens either with South Korean or North Korean nationality. The cheering squad supported the North Korean female team during its games with South Korea, Japan and China.

A (South) Korea Football Association (KFA) official said in late June that North Korea appeared to be trying to live up to its obligations as an EAFF member state and also seeks to improve inter-Korean ties through sports.

The two Koreas have competed as a single nation at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and also at the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship, a tournament now called the FIFA U-20 World Cup. However, they have never competed as one or have formed unified teams for individual events at the Olympics, Asian Games or the Universiade.

South Korea is trying to change that. With the help of the United Nations, officials in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, have been trying to field joint Korean teams for at least a couple of events for the Summer Universiade to be held there in 2015.

The two Koreas have marched together under one flag at opening ceremonies for several multi-sport competitions but not done so since the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China.