Image copyrightAFP

Image caption
South Korea’s star player is Tottenham’s Son Heung-min

On Tuesday, North and South Korea will play a football derby like no other.

It’s not too rare for the two sides to face off – but it’s almost unheard of to play in the North’s capital, Pyongyang. In fact, it has only happened once, in 1990.

There will be no live broadcast, no fans from the South, and no foreign media at all in the stands.

After some progress in 2018 – when sports partly broke the ice – ties between North and South are at a low.

Safe to say, this is a match the home side will not be taking lightly.

“Football is the most popular spectator sport in North Korea and sports are hugely important for the North,” Andray Abrahamian, Senior Adjunct Fellow at the Pacific Forum, told the BBC.

“It provides a focal point for pride and patriotism. In a sense, it’s pretty similar to how other countries use sports for social purposes.”

Image copyrightReuters

Image caption
The North’s stadiums are better known for propaganda than for international football

Kick-off between the two men’s national teams will be in the early evening (08:30 GMT), but if you want to follow the match, you’ll have a hard time.

Apart from the fact it isn’t being broadcast live, even international tourists currently in North Korea won’t be allowed to watch the game.

How unusual is a North Korea – South Korea match?

It does happen: both countries are members of Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation, meaning they can be drawn against each other in international competition.

There have also been friendly matches – including that game in Pyongyang in 1990. This time, it’s a qualifier for the 2022 Qatar World Cup that has brought them together.

But what’s rare is that Tuesday’s match takes place in North Korea.

Previously, most games were held either in the South, or in a third country. When they were drawn against each other in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, both the North’s home games against the South were played in Shanghai.

The two countries are technically still at war – the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, but a peace treaty was never signed – and the North would not allow the South’s anthem or flag in its stadium.

Image copyrightGetty Images

Image caption
North Korea’s women’s team (in red) only lost once to the South

The women’s teams have also only played once in the North, for a 2017 qualifier for the Asian Cup the following year.

All other women’s matches were held either in the South or a third country.

Which side are the favourites?

For the men’s sides, the odds are clearly with the South.

The team has won or drawn almost every fixture since the first match in the Asian Games in 1978, with the 1990 friendly in Pyongyang being the only time the North triumphed, winning 2-1.

Given the South is ranked 37 in the world compared with the North at 113, you might expect South Korea to win this one as well.

Yet both teams are level at the top of their qualifying group, having each won their previous two games.

Each side have a star player: for the South, Tottenham’s Son Heung-min, while North Korea have recent Juventus signing Han Kwang-song.

Image copyrightReuters

Image caption
North Korea’s Han Kwang-song fights for the ball with Lebanon’s Nour Mansour at the Kim Il Sung Stadium, Pyongyang, in September 2019

On Tuesday, North Korea has home advantage – and there will be not a single South Korean fan in the stadium.

It’s not even clear whether there will be any home spectators. Talking to the reporters on the way to Pyongyang, South Korean players appeared to expect an empty stadium.

“It’s much better to play in a packed stadium rather than an empty one, but I think we’ll be able to play a good match if we use it as motivation,” defender Kim Min-jae told AFP.

For the women’s team, the stats are almost an exact inversion of the men’s.

The South has won only once. All other matches were either a draw or won by the North.

What’s the state of North-South relations?

The match comes as relations between Seoul and Pyongyang hit something of a low.

The North is upset that South Korea continues to carry out low-level military exercises with the US, and earlier this summer rejected all further talks with Seoul.

The North’s denuclearisation talks with the US have just again hit a roadblock, and relations with the South tend to ebb and flow alongside such talks.

Pyongyang also recently tested a new missile, in a significant advance on earlier tests, increasing tension with Washington.

Media playback is unsupported on your device

Media captionThe nuclear word Trump and Kim can’t agree on

But the ups and downs of North-South relations are not usually reflected in the sporting rivalry.

“The people I’ve talked to about this in both Koreas generally seem quite supportive of athletes from the other side,” says Mr Abrahamian.

“They’re pleased to see Koreans doing well on the world stage, whatever country they’re from.”

Sports diplomacy to the rescue?

Sport has often been a key to unlocking fresh diplomacy on the peninsula.

The 2018 thaw came about when North Korea’s Kim Jong-un floated the idea his country could take part in the Winter Olympics in the South.

Months later, the two teams marched under a common flag, participated together and even fielded a joint women’s ice hockey team.

The same feat was repeated at the Asian Games when a unified Korea boating team won a historic gold medal.

Image copyrightAFP

Image caption
The gold medallists sang a national folk song to celebrate their victory

With the mood in Pyongyang notoriously unpredictable, it is hard to say whether Tuesday’s soccer game might again pave the way for fresh diplomacy.

In September, North and South agreed they will seek to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

But in the lead-up to the World Cup qualifier, relations remained very tense.

The South hoped to be able to send fans to the match – but were denied. And Seoul offered to organise the broadcasting of the match, an offer also turned down.

“This time, it doesn’t look as if Pyongyang is looking for the match to be a tool to bridge the strained political relationship,” Mr Abrahamian said.

“Pyongyang has been giving Seoul the cold shoulder for most of this year and that probably won’t change – unless the US and North Korea find a breakthrough.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here