The South Korean women’s football team and the North Korean women’s team are scheduled to play against each other in Pyongyang on April 7th. This is the first time they will face each other in Pyongyang, as part of the Asian Football Confederation’s Women’s Asian Cup. South Korea and North Korea will play in the AFC Women’s Asia Cup Group B qualifying game. Both teams will also play India, Uzbekistan, and Hong Kong in the same group, and all matches will be held at the Kim Il Sung Stadium in Pyongyang.
The South Korean government gave their approval for the women’s team to visit Pyongyang last Thursday after the North Korean government gave the team an assurance of safety. Both the North and South Korean governments need to give permission for any of their citizens to make visits across the border.
One team will move forward from the Group B qualifiers to the Women’s Asian Cup in Jordan. Out of the teams in Group B, the two Koreas have the best chance, as they are ranked the highest. Hong Kong currently ranks number 65, India number 56, Uzbekistan number 42, South Korea at 17, and North Korea at 10.
The North Korean women’s football team has a strong record, having won the Asian Cup three times in the past. South Korea has only managed to beat the North Korean women’s team once in 2005. The last time they met was at the 2016 Olympic Games, with the result being a 1-1 draw.
Yonhap News reported that the South Korean women’s team have been practicing with loudspeakers that blast the sounds of a North Korean crowd in order to prepare for the match in Pyongyang.
Tensions between the two Koreas are currently at a high, both politically and internationally, and have been heightened recently by the THAAD system deployment in South Korea, North Korea’s recent missile test launches, and the assassination of Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam. Despite this, the football world seems to be largely separate from these tensions. While in the past the meetings of the South Korean and North Korean men’s and women’s football teams have been watched closely, they have often sparked talk of inter-Korean friendship and even reconciliation. In 2010, when the North Korean men’s team faced a massive 7-0 loss to Brazil in the World Cup, the BBC reported that in sports bars in Seoul, South Koreans quite clearly observed and supported the North Korean men’s team just as much as the South Korean team. They quoted a fan as saying “I always support our brothers when they’re playing other countries.”
Former captain of the South Korean men’s team Park Ji-sung has spoken of the effects sports can have. The Guardian quoted Park in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup saying, “Football can produce something more than we expect and maybe we can get closer to North Korea through the World Cup. Football can make things different and football can make change around the world.” Speaking about the 2010 World Cup match between the North Korean men’s team and Brazil, he said “I will watch the North Korean games. North Korea and South Korea speak the same language and actually we are the same country. It’s the first time when both teams go to the World Cup. Their group is very tough but North Korea is a difficult team to beat and difficult to score against as they showed in qualification.”
The South Korean and North Korean football rivalry has not been without controversy, entirely, however. In 2010, FIFA moved a match between the South Korean men’s team and the North Korean men’s team from Pyongyang to Shanghai when North Korea refused to play the South Korean anthem. It remains to be seen how the women’s game on the 7th will play out, both on the field and politically. It seems clear that for many, including the football fans and the players, football is separated from politics. The football games between the South Korean teams and the North Korean teams give a unique opportunity for small steps to be taken towards friendlier relations between the two Koreas.