Korean football's great divide

Increasing affinity on pitch ahead of World Cup may only partly heal North v South tension.

    South score against North: But fierce rivalry on the pitch is friendly compared to diplomatic relations [GALLO/GETTY]

    With both North and South Korea competing in the same World Cup for the first time, many on this war-divided peninsula were hoping for a moment when sports can cross borders and unite people.

    That feeling was so strong that some South Korean politicians had even proposed sending a united group of fans to South Africa to support both Korean teams.

    But the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship in March has shattered the mood and heightened tensions between the two nations.

    The chances of using the World Cup as an opportunity for reconciliation appear to have been dashed, just weeks before kickoff.

    The results of an investigation into the ship sinking are due out on Thursday.

    If South Korea points at the communist North as the culprit, a diplomatic push to haul the North before the UN Security Council may soon follow.

    North Korea will arrive at the World Cup with little of the goodwill they received at their last appearance in the World Cup in 1966, when, despite Cold War tensions, the team won over fans in host nation England and elsewhere.

    Monster upset

    Known at home as the "Chollima" squad, the North Koreans produced a monster upset over Italy to advance to the quarter-finals.

    "It's not every day that both Koreas make the World Cup. Of course I'll be cheering for the North Koreans"

    Kye Yoon-shik, South Korean filmmaker

    Most neutrals supported the underdogs as they took a 3-0 lead against Portugal, but the Portuguese, led by the legendary Eusebio, surged back with five goals to put an end to the North Koreans' fairytale run.

    A lot has changed for the Koreas in the four decades since.

    Back then, the North had a stronger economy than the struggling South, and even the Chollima players' boots were the envy of the South Korean team.

    Today, the cash-strapped North relies on handouts to feed its people while the capitalist South boasts the world's 15th largest economy.

    Sanctions for its nuclear defiance have further strained the North and earned pariah status for the regime led by Kim Jong Il.

    Footage from '66 shows the North Koreans in playful mood with their newfound fans as they wave and sign autographs, even bouncing English children on their knees.

    Closed ranks

    In the years since, the regime has closed ranks and tightened its control over the population of 24 million.

    Few are allowed to leave the country, and those who do travel abroad – even the World Cup squad – are closely supervised by North Korean officials.

    North Korea qualified for the World Cup at Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia [AFP]

    North and South Korea remain locked in a state of war because they never signed a peace treaty at the close of the three-year Korean War in 1953.

    Sport, however, has been one area where both sides have made fledgling efforts at reconciliation.

    At the 2000 Summer Olympics, athletes from the two Koreas walked into Stadium Australia together under a "unification flag" to an emotional standing ovation.

    Last year, the blue-and-white unity flag fluttered in the packed stands in Seoul as North Korea played the South in a World Cup qualifier, with the South's exuberant Red Devils fans cheering for both teams.

    The head of South Korea's bid to host the World Cup in 2022 has also said he wants the North to host matches if South Korea win their bid.

    Southern filmmaker Kye Yoon-shik has made a movie, "Dreams Come True" in which North Korean soldiers illicitly watch South Korea's progress to the World Cup semi-finals in 2002.


    He remembers the frenzy on the streets of Seoul at the time.

    "Thousands of people dressed in red, boulevards blocked off and the whole country coming together to cheer for the soccer team – I couldn't help but wonder, 'What's going on on the other side of the border?'" he said.

    "Did they watch the games at all? Were they cheering for us?

    "This movie shows that we're one people; it shows the Korean people's love for one another,'' Kye said.

    He said that love would be present in South Africa this summer.

    "It's not every day that both Koreas make the World Cup," Kye said.

    "Of course I'll be cheering for the North Koreans."



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