Koreans watch their opening World Cup match in Seoul, Monday evening. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Koreans watch their opening World Cup match in Seoul, Monday evening. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

As Team South Korea made its first bid for World Cup glory in Novgorod, Russia, inter-Korean sports talks were taking place inside the Demilitarized Zone on the other side of the globe.

Officials from North Korea, whose team did not qualify for the Cup, sat down with their South Korean counterparts at the truce village of Panmunjom to discuss closer cooperation. The talks focused on the August Asian Games in Indonesia. Officials agreed to a joint march on and inter-Korean teams for certain events, Yonhap news reported after the talks had concluded.

In addition, the two sides agreed to hold a friendly inter-Korean basketball match in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, on July 4, according to Yonhap. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a big fan of the game, had proposed the idea to South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their summit in April.

Follow-up talks will discuss a resumption of reunions for families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, reconnecting severed cross-border railway and road connections, and establishing a South Korea liaison office in North Korea. General-level officers from both Koreas met last Thursday and agreed to restore a cross-border military hotline.

Sports are a relatively easy way for South Korea to interface with North Korea and build relationships and trust; they are not sanctioned. Indeed, the ongoing inter-Korean détente was, to a large part, formulated during the South Korean-hosted Winter Olympics this year. North Korea participated at the last moment, and intense sideline diplomacy paved the way for the April inter-Korean summit.

Sports are a relatively easy way for South Korea to interface with North Korea and build relationships

Meanwhile, it is not clear whether North Koreans will be watching their southern brothers battle it out on the pitch against the Swedes.

“One thing the North Koreans are known for is nationalism, and if the South Korean administration of the day is positively disposed toward North Korea, I would imagine they would support South Korea,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at the Asan Institute in Seoul.

However, they are unlikely to be able to see the game in real time, Go noted. North Koreans will probably be shown the match, or highlights, on state TV after a 24-hour time lag.

Soon after the talks wrapped up in Panmunjom, South Koreans converged on public spaces in their tens of thousands to watch their team’s first World Cup Group F match against Sweden, in Novgorod. The country has been loco about international football since the 2002 World Cup, which Korea co-hosted with Japan.

That year the “Taeguk Warriors” – the Taeguk is South Korea’s distanced, yin-yang themed national flag – leveraged hometown advantage and produced their best performance in a World Cup tourney. They also did far better than their Japanese arch-rivals.

Despite a deadly North Korean naval attack in the Yellow Sea, timed – with breathtaking cynicism – to take place just hours before South Korea’s last match against Turkey, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. Millions dressed in the “Red Devils” strip swarmed city centers to watch the games on giant LED screens set up in public spaces.

Although the tribal atmosphere was intense, the cheering sessions were inclusive; no violence was reported. After the matches, Red Devils even cleared up trash on the streets before heading home. These scenes have been replicated at each World Cup since.

It is a passionate and engaged affair – momentarily it is true love, they are not pretending!

Seoul City Hall established two stages, with giant screens, in iconic downtown locations: At Gwanghwamun, in front of the medieval palace around which Seoul was built, and in front of City Hall itself at Seoul Square.

“The Gwanghwamun Square [main stage] will have 500-inch screen installed to support for passionate cheering mood,” a press release from Seoul City explained. “At the Seoul Square, a bit moderate mood of street cheering events will be held mainly for family visitors.”

The city will also close traffic throughput in the two locations, and extend subway opening hours, the release stated.

On Monday evening, thousands of locals – and a sprinkling of foreigners – showed up at Gwanghwamun Plaza, where giant LED screens broadcasting the match and a stage for cheerleaders had been set up. Nearby, matrons set up stalls selling the national strip and plastic horns – symbols of the Red Devils. Emergency crews were on hand in case anyone was overcome with excitement. The crowd “oohed,” “aahed” and roared as the action commenced.

“Red Devils,” complete with horns, watch the action in Seoul on Monday evening, Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

But despite appearances to the contrary, South Koreans are not football mad – they are “us-against-the-world” mad, said one long-time Korea watcher, even if it is a relatively obscure sport, like curling. Korea got all excited about curling during the Winter Olympics.

“They love international events,” said Mike Breen, the Seoul-based author of The New Koreans. “But this is a baseball country, not a football country, and the local league matches are poorly attended; nobody talks much about local teams.”

Still, the soaring World Cup emotions are not feigned, Breen added.

“It is a passionate and engaged affair – momentarily it is true love, they are not pretending!” he said. “There will be tens of thousands watching on big screens and getting very excited, and this will pick up during the tourney until they are out. Then it will be just the hardcore football enthusiasts who will be watching.”

That outcome may be imminent. South Korea lost to Sweden 1-0. Its next matches in the group are against powerhouses Germany and Mexico.

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