By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) – Long-time foes North and South Korea played a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, their first football match in the North in 30 years, but no fans were allowed in the stands and Pyongyang refused to broadcast the game live.
There were also no goals.
The last time the two sides met in a World Cup qualifier was in Seoul 10 years ago, when the North lost 1-0 before accusing South Korea of poisoning their players’ food ahead of the match.
Reclusive North Korea and the rich, democratic South are technically still at war because their 1950-53 civil conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
National anthems of both sides were played before the match kicked off at the Kim Il Sung Stadium and the flags of the two countries were on display, the South’s Korea Football Association (KFA) said.
Two earlier qualifiers that had been scheduled for North Korea had to be switched to Shanghai after Pyongyang refused to raise the South’s flag or play its anthem.
North Korea had promised to provide footage of the match on DVD, the South’s unification ministry said.
“We would need time for technical checks but despite some delays our people will be able to watch the game,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency issued a brief report early on Wednesday, saying the qualifier ended in a 0-0 draw after a series of “attacks and counterattacks”.
Two players on each side received yellow cards, the KFA said.
FIFA president Gianni Infantino was at the match and said in a statement that he was “disappointed to see there were no fans in the stands”.
“We were surprised by this and by several issues related to its live broadcast and problems with visas and access for foreign journalists,” he said, adding that, for FIFA, freedom of the press and freedom of speech were paramount.
Last year saw a flurry of sports diplomacy between the two Koreas, which fielded a joint ice hockey team and marched together at the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
That set the stage for a series of summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s Moon Jae-in. The two Koreas even talked about a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.
But relations have since cooled over stalled negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
In addition to the television blackout and empty stands, South Korean media were also blocked, with only some 30 KFA staff with limited communications allowed to relay information about the game, Seoul officials said.
South Korea’s squad, including Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min, arrived in Pyongyang on Monday via Beijing instead of a shorter route across the DMZ between the two Koreas, after months of no response from Pyongyang.
“There have always been at least some South Korean fans, so it will be our first time to play without any,” defender Kim Min-jae said before leaving for Beijing on Monday.
“But we can overcome and play well.”
One South Korean user of the South’s Naver web portal said: “How do we co-host the Olympics when we can’t even watch one single qualifier?”
Another said: “Best if we win, but it’s also fine to lose. I just hope our players return safely.”
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang and Brian Homewood; Editing by Nick Macfie and Clare Fallon)