It was a de facto defeat for South Korea.
In a men’s World Cup qualifier match held Tuesday in Pyongyang, South Korea, No. 37 in the FIFA world rankings, failed to score a single goal against North Korea, No. 113, even with Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min leading the charge.
It was the first inter-Korean home game for North Korea in almost three decades, since the two Koreas played each other in 1990.
South Koreans couldn’t watch the Tuesday match or cheer for their team in real time, as North Korea allowed no spectators, news media or live broadcasts, only promising to deliver a DVD with the match footage.
Pyongyang’s ban infuriated South Korean fans and dismayed FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who, along with a few foreign diplomats posted in Pyongyang, attended the match at Kim Il-sung Stadium.
“I was looking forward to seeing a full stadium for such a historic match but was disappointed to see there were no fans in the stands,” Infantino said, adding that he was surprised by how live broadcasting was not possible and that foreign reporters had to deal with visa problems.
An official at the Korea Football Association said, “The no-spectator match wasn’t consulted earlier with the Asian Football Confederation. As the host, North Korea has the rights to sell tickets to the stadium, and the AFC cannot raise issues with that.”
Some South Koreans blamed government indecision for what the BBC called “the world’s strangest football derby.”
“The match is the first of its kind held in Pyongyang, but no South Korean cheering squads or press could be there. What exchange or cooperation is the South Korean government really talking about?” said Kim Hack-yong, a lawmaker with the main opposition Liberty Korea Party.
Baek Seung-joo, another Liberty Korea Party lawmaker on the National Defense Committee, stepped up the rhetoric, saying, “The Moon administration should realize what we see today is the very inter-Korean relations at face value.”
Tuesday’s match came amid rocky relations between Seoul and Pyongyang. The two neighbors have not engaged much since US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un failed to see eye to eye on a denuclearization deal at their Hanoi summit in February. The North tested missiles after the summit.
“It may just as well be that Seoul had sought ways to make the game more accessible, but Pyongyang just didn’t come to terms, out of fears of a humiliating defeat at home,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
The professor noted the mending inter-Korean ties will not be easy, saying,
“Unless we see a major breakthrough on the nuclear talks between the US and North Korea by the end of this year, a thaw in inter-Korean relations isn’t likely.”
By Choi Si-young (firstname.lastname@example.org