South Korean footballer Lee Kang-in (C) arrives at Incheon international airport on October 13, 2019, with his teammates to leave for Pyongyang via Beijing. Photo: AFP/STR/Yonhap

When Tottenham Hotspur superstar Son Heung-min, the captain of South Korea’s national squad, leads his team onto the pitch at the Kim Il Sung Stadium on Tuesday evening, they will search in vain for any South Korean flags in the stands.

In a bizarre situation for a FIFA-sponsored international football match, and in a glaring sign of the frigid state of inter-Korean relations, no South Korean media or fans have been able to travel to Pyongyang for the North Korea-South Korea World Cup qualifier on Tuesday evening.

The crowd in the 50,000-capacity stadium – all expected to be cheering for North Korea – will likely pose a psychological barrier for the South Korean team.

Meanwhile, the opacity surrounding the match – as of Monday afternoon, no live broadcast of the match had been scheduled, leading South Korean officials to explore creative avenues of information provision – is proving immensely frustrating for media and fans south of the DMZ.

It’s all a far cry from the near-ecstatic sports exchanges of 2018.

Then, the arrival of the North Korean team and related officials and cheerleaders at the Winter Olympics, held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, sparked enormous excitement, amid anticipation that the isolated state was, at last, coming in from the cold.

Today, cross-border relations – so promising a year ago – are in dire straits.

South Korean policy toward North Korea is essentially held hostage to the policy of its only ally, the United States, and the breakdown of last week’s Pyongyang-Washington talks in Stockholm bodes ill for the future.

Footballers go off-grid

Tuesday’s date is the first World Cup qualifier to be contested between the two Koreas since October 1990. The venue, Kim Il Sung stadium – named after the first, Soviet-appointed leader of North Korea and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong Un – is home to the country’s women’s and men’s football teams.

According to South Korean media on Monday, North Korea ignored Seoul’s requests to send a cheering squad and also refused the team permission to fly direct to Pyongyang. Instead, the team were required to fly via Beijing. The South Korean players were also required to leave their mobile phones in Beijing.

With the [South] Korean Football Association, or KFA, in Seoul not answering phone calls and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s related staff being incommunicado in North Korea, little information was forthcoming.

As of mid-day Monday, Asia Times was informed that South Korean broadcaster KBS was negotiating – it was not clear though which channels – with North Korea to obtain either a live signal or recordings of the match.

North Korea’s last qualifying match, against Lebanon, was not broadcast live but a post-match recording was aired the day following.

It was also unclear whether or how KBS could pay a fee for the service without breaching sanctions on international financial transactions with North Korea.

A South Korean sports reporter with a major daily expressed his frustration to Asia Times.

“This is highly unusual,” the reporter said, noting that he and his colleagues had previously had no difficulty reporting on a China-South Korea World Cup qualifier in North Korea’s main ally, China, in 2017.

He said sources were telling him that there would be no live signal from Pyongyang. His understanding was that there is no requirement for host nations to broadcast early-round qualification matches.

Staff at FIFA affiliate the Asia Football Confederation in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were unable to answer Asia Times’ telephone and email inquiries on this matter.

Due to the likely lack of a live broadcast, the Seoul-based reporter and his colleagues were hoping to obtain information about the game from KFA staff in Pyongyang via social media channels, he said.

If that proves impossible – there are wireless internet connections in Pyongyang, but they are both restricted and pricey, and it is not even known if the staffers were able to carry smartphones or laptops into North Korea – the reporter said that faxes might be sent from the stadium to the federation’s Seoul offices. From there, the information could be distributed around South Korea.

Otherwise, the only way the outside world will gain timely information is from international newswires. Tass, Xinhua, AP and AFP all maintain bureaus in the North Korean capital.

The AP and AFP offices are manned by North Korean photographers, rather than foreign text reporters, who only visit the isolated state infrequently.

However, Asia Times understands that at least one foreign reporter will deploy to Pyongyang to cover the high-profile match.

Even so, the Seoul-based sports reporter was seething.  He blamed it on “the one-way love to North Korea from the South Korean government.”

The end of a bromance

Seoul has, indeed, prioritized inter-Korean relations. And only one year ago, things looked rosy indeed.

At the Winter Olympics, the warm welcome accorded the North Korean team, their cheerleaders and related officials – including Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong – was followed by cultural exchanges on both sides of the DMZ, and three inter-Korean summits.

A real bromance appeared to be brewing between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim, particularly after a triumphant summit in Pyongyang in September.

But the heady hopes of the year were soon dashed. Kim failed to show – with no explanation – for a promised summit in Seoul in December.

Following the failure of the second North Korea-US summit in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February 2019, promising cross-border projects, such as the restart of South Korean manufacturing and tourism projects in North Korea, and the re-connection of trans-Korean rail lines, were stillborn.

With relations with Beijing chilly and relations with Tokyo dire, Seoul has been unwilling to break international sanctions or otherwise displease its only ally, Washington.

Seoul’s adherence to Washington’s line has irked Pyongyang, which has aimed inflammatory rhetoric at Seoul, refused medical and food aid and is now exercising minimal cooperation regarding Tuesday’s match.

Even Seoul officials – who have customarily toed the administration’s increasingly strained line of optimism on North Korea relations – gave vent to displeasure.

“There were cautious expectations that the upcoming match could provide an impetus in inter-Korean relations,” an unnamed official told Yonhap, South Korea’s semi-official news agency. “We are disappointed with the North not responding to our offers for talks on the upcoming event.”

Pay up or shut up

At the moment, Moon could use any kind of help he can get from North Korea.

Domestically, his popularity is being hit by a slowing economy and a surprising level of anger at his controversial justice minister. On the foreign policy front, relations with China are in a chill and dire with Japan.

This situation has granted the North the opportunity to lean on him, one expert opined.

“I am not surprised at [North Korea’s] non-cooperation. I would have been surprised if they had cooperated,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, told Asia Times. “They are exerting pressure on South Korea, as they want South Korea to lobby for relaxation of sanctions with Washington.”

Until and unless that happens, North Korea is “not going to give the South Korean government the symbolic concessions they want, that will then give the impression to South Korean voters that things with North Korea are fine,” Lankov continued.

Another expert agreed.

“Why they are behaving so nastily is because North Korea hates it when South Korea [suggests it has] leverage over Pyongyang for their own domestic political advantage,” said Go Myong-hyun of think tank the Asan Institute. “Right now, Moon is touting that North-South relations are better than ever before, but North Korea is not profiting from this, so they want to remind Moon it is time to pay up.”

But while Moon may be desperate to kick-start stalled inter-Korean relations, any hope of economic cooperation is stymied by his relationship with Washington.

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