By Jean H. Lee
PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — There are no hot dogs, peanuts, or plastic cups of beer for sale when the North Korean soccer team takes the pitch. There are no noisemakers, and no one does the wave.
Yet fans here are passionate in their own way, packing the stadium to the rafters, stamping and booing every time the visiting team threatens to score. From schoolchildren in Adidas tracksuits to soldiers in uniform, they jostle for a good view of the team that has become a symbol of national pride.
Playing before a capacity crowd at Kim Il Sung Stadium, Pak Nam Choi gave North Korea a 1–0 lead on Tuesday, Nov. 15, in the 50th minute with an angled header beyond the reach of Japan goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa.
The match had no bearing on the outcome of the group — Japan has already qualified for the next stage, while North Korea can not make it — but there is always tension in this fixture between two nations that do not have diplomatic ties.
Four of the North Korean players, including star striker Jong Tae Se, were born into ethnic Korean communities in Japan, and bitterness still runs deep over Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea, which ended in 1945.
More than six decades later, Tokyo and Pyongyang still do not have diplomatic ties. The last time the Japanese men played on North Korean soil was in 1989, when North Korea won, 2–0.
Since then, relations have deteriorated. Japan has pressed North Korea to address the past abductions of Japanese citizens, and after North Korea fired ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan’s shores and tested a nuclear device in 2006, Japan joined the United States and other nations in imposing economic sanctions on North Korea as punishment.
Those sanctions have cut off much-needed sources of aid at a time when 6 million North Koreans — a quarter of the population — are going hungry, according to the World Food Program. Japan is also party to the stalled talks that would bring food aid to Pyongyang in exchange for an agreement to discontinue its nuclear program. The North Koreans walked away from those discussions two years ago, but efforts are now under way to get them back on track.
More than 200 Japanese citizens, including 150 Blue Samurai fans and two dozen journalists, traveled to Pyongyang for Tuesday’s game — the largest Japanese delegation in years. As a precaution, Tokyo has sent a team of Japanese diplomats to North Korea to watch over them.
The fans were warned to behave. No sightseeing, no straying from the group. No drums, speakers, banners or Japanese flags, according to Nishitetsu Travel, which organized the three-day, $3,740 tour for the Japanese Football Association.
“In principle, [North Korea] is a country where we have travel restrictions, and we are only allowing this trip as an exception,” Japan’s Chief Cabinet Spokesman Osamu Fujimura said Friday in Tokyo. “Therefore, we would like the visitors to refrain from any activity other than watching the game while in (North Korea).”
The long gap between a North Korea-Japan faceoff on North Korean soil serves as a “painful reminder” of how bad relations are, said Peter Beck, a research fellow at the East-West Center, who is a specialist on Japanese–North Korean issues.
In 2005, a match scheduled to be played in Pyongyang was instead moved to Thailand due to security worries.
However, there have been tentative moves toward improving ties. Last month, Japanese doctors traveled to North Korea to examine Korean victims of the World War II atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both the visit and the game represent a “very modest effort” to improve ties, Beck said.
As far as the soccer goes, it would appear to be an uneven match with little bearing on the World Cup. Japan is Asia’s top ranked team and No. 17 overall, while North Korea is ranked 124th in the world, according to FIFA.
Japan has already secured its spot in the next round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, while North Korea is out, its hopes of consecutive appearances dashed by back-to-back losses to Uzbekistan.
North Korea boasts a strong defense, but scoring goals has never been a strength. At January’s Asian Cup, the North Koreans failed to score against the UAE, Iran, and Iraq. Japan, meanwhile, took the title.
However, games between Japan and North Korea are always closely fought. Their last three meetings ended with one win each and a tie. Of the last 15 games, Japan has won six, while North Korea has won five.
Japan is home to some 600,000 ethnic Koreans, many of them descendants of Koreans who moved, by force or for work, to Japan during the colonial occupation. Ethnic Koreans born in Japan are automatically assigned South Korean citizenship, but have the option of changing their loyalty to North Korea, as many who grow up in pro-North Korean communities do.
In communist North Korea, soccer is clearly the most popular sport. And, despite economic hardships, people make time both to play and watch games.
“A soccer hurricane is sweeping the whole country,” the Pyongyang Times declared.
In the alleyways and dirt fields off the main streets, boys kick soccer balls in the autumn sunshine. The most promising among them may be plucked from playgrounds for training at an early age. In this country, where only the elite can travel overseas, top players from both the men’s and women’s teams are treated like celebrities.
At last month’s World Cup qualifier between North Korea and Uzbekistan, Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo Stadium was packed. The only empty seats were in the section reserved for foreigners, a motley group of diplomats and tourists, some holding North Korean flags.
The fans were a mix of neatly dressed military officers and men in workaday suits smoking cigarettes. The women’s soccer team also turned out in red tracksuits. A few rows behind them, a girl in a baseball cap turned backward sat at the edge of her seat, eyes fixed on the game.
“Strike! Strike,” the crowd implored in Korean as the ball neared the Uzbekistan goal. One phrase, “Shoot! Shoot!” they cried in English.
A hush fell over the stadium when the game ended 1–0 for Uzbekistan, the crowd rising to its feet and jostling for the exits. (end)
Associated Press writers Foster Klug and John Duerden in Seoul, South Korea, and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report. Follow Jean H. Lee on Twitter at twitter.com/newsjean and photographer David Guttenfelder at twitter.com/dguttenfelder.