South Korea faces potential World Cup qualifier in North Korea

South Korea are scheduled to play North Korea on October 15 (AP Photo)

The South Korea men’s 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 them in Pyongyang will materialize considering their political tension.

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 to relocate its home games to China.

Drawn in the same Asian qualifying group on Wednesday, the Koreas are scheduled to meet in the North on Oct. 15 and in the South on June 4 next year. Group H also includes Lebanon, Turkmenistan, and Sri Lanka.

South Korea last played at the North Korean capital in 1990 for a friend. 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 third-generation ruler Kim Jong Un, a brash young leader with a passion for sports, 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’s governing body, anticipated its 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 star striker who plays for English Premier League club Tottenham.

Previously, the Koreas faced each other four times during qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The games were initially scheduled as home and away but North Korea baulked 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. The matches resulted in three draws and one South Korea win before both Koreas qualified for South Africa.

South Korea has dominated the past 16 matches with seven wins, one loss, and eight draws. When relations were bad, sports often became an alternate political battlefield between the Koreas, with North athletes and coaches rejecting handshakes with their South counterparts.

At the height of their Cold War rivalry, North Korea boycotted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics 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 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 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 Olympics carried on to the 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 basketball teams to Pyongyang for friendly 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 last September.

Aside from 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 send combined teams to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and other major sports events.

But the relations between them have soured since the collapse of a nuclear summit between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in February over disagreements on 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 Korean city of Gwangju.

Cho Han Bum, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification, said a World Cup qualifier 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.