PYONGYANG: South Korea’s flag flew and its anthem was played in Pyongyang on Friday as its women’s football team took on their neighbors in the first ever competitive soccer match between the two countries hosted by the North.
A packed crowd at the 40,000-plus capacity Kim Il-Sung stadium stood to hear the South Korean national song in respectful silence, before belting out the North’s hymn.
Every touch by the home team in attack or defense was cheered to the rafters, with supporters waving golden cardboard megaphones.
The only previous encounter in Pyongyang between footballers from the two sides was a pro-unification match between the men’s teams in 1990, when both used a flag showing the whole Korean peninsula and their respective anthems were not played. The North won 2-1.
Since then, games nominally hosted in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as the North is officially known, have had to be played on neutral ground due to authorities’ reluctance to see the South’s flag fluttering in their capital.
A few hours south of Pyongyang the North Korean military faces off against US-led United Nations forces across the Demilitarized Zone, considered one of the most heavily fortified locations on Earth.
The match comes as the North’s nuclear ambitions top the agenda at a meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping after Pyongyang’s latest missile launch this week in violation of UN resolutions and condemned by the Security Council.
The two Koreas are technically at war because the 1950-53 Korean conflict ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty, and relations have plunged in recent months.
Seoul demanded security guarantees for the players before authorities approved the trip.
The South’s coach Yoon Duk-Yeo — who was on the losing side in the 1990 unification game — reportedly installed loudspeakers at a training ground to replicate the expected aural barrage.
But the Group B qualifier for the AFC Women’s Asian Cup offers a rare chance for a moment of detente between the two.
‘A bit emotional’
Sporting links “have eased anxieties during times of escalating tensions” said Michael Spavor, director of Paektu Culture Exchange, which facilitates exchanges in multiple fields with the North.
Koreans on either side of the border tend to back each other’s teams when they play other countries.
Two gymnasts from the North and South posed for a selfie at the Rio Olympics last year and the image instantly went viral, symbolizing hopes for closer ties.
When Koreans from both sides of the divide meet, said Spavor, there is “genuine curiosity… and even a little bit of anxiety, which creates a kind of tension”.
But at sports events participants “get lost in the moment”, he told Agence France-Presse. “Many athletes realize afterwards how special an experience it was and they can naturally get a bit emotional.”
The football match comes after the two countries’ women’s ice hockey teams played in Gangneung, in the South, on Thursday, with the hosts winning 3-0.
The North, who have home advantage and are ranked 10th in the world by FIFA to the South’s 17th, will be favorites to win in Pyongyang. They have taken the Women’s Asian Cup three times and have a head-to-head record of 14 wins, two draws and one loss.
But in their opening game the Taeguk Ladies — the South’s team — destroyed India 10-0, suggesting the match could be close.
The group winner will go through to the AFC Women’s Asian Cup finals in Jordan next year.
For the North’s players, that offers the chance of being glorified in art.
One room at the National Art Gallery in Pyongyang is dominated by a huge painting of the side holding aloft the East Asian Football Championship trophy after their victory in 2015.
A guide at the museum said she was “certain” the North would win Friday’s match.
But she added: “It is heartbreaking that we have to participate as two separate teams because our countries are not unified.”