Three North Korean under-15 football teams arrived in South Korea to attend the Ari Sports Tournament, with the first game held in Gangwon-do Province on October 29. Around 10,000 spectators were present and many waved the white and blue Korean Unification Flag, indicating the significance of this tournament. The competition is organized by the Inter-Korea Sports Association which has been running since 2014 as a way of bringing the two rival states together.
Choi Moon-soon, the governor of Gangwon-do, has said, “we hope this football tournament can make progress and play a bigger role in the development of inter-Korean relations.” This sentiment could be also be felt by the atmosphere of the game; crowds cheered for North Korea as they did a lap around the field and players of both teams left the field arm-in-arm. One North Korean soccer player, Rhee Il-song, also said, “I hope in the future we can come and go more often and build friendship.” According to Yonhap, even further progress is being made with discussions for a joint youth football team to compete in European tournaments. They are also looking to invite teams from the United States to participate in the next Ari Sports Tournament in May next year. It is clear that hope is publicly growing for peace and unification in Korea.
Sport has become an increasingly popular strategy on the Korean Peninsula to diffusing tensions. Earlier this year, South Korea invited North Korea to march together during the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Following several nuclear missile firings in 2017 that threatened South Korea, and the mounting fear that relations between the neighbouring countries would continue to deteriorate, South Korea responded with an alternative form of diplomacy to bring about constructive dialogue. The Winter Olympics gesture has proven to be effective as South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un went on to meet at a demilitarized zone at the start of the inter-Korean summit to discuss the possibilities of denuclearization.
According to the BBC, this football tournament is just a small gesture amidst the pressing issues of nuclear weapons. However, it is hard to deny the efficacy that sports diplomacy has had in improving the relationships between the two Korean states. International relations are not simply about relationship-building between top tier officials, but also the perceptions of ordinary citizens and their feelings towards each other. With decades of tension between the two sides, what better way to bring people together but a great football match.