Historic rivalry as Japan heads to NKorea
There are no noisemakers and no one does the wave, yet football fans in North Korea are passionate in their own way about the team that has become a symbol of national pride.
That pride will be at stake Tuesday when North Korea faces Japan at Kim Il Sung Stadium in a much-anticipated World Cup qualifier that promises to be about far more than just football.
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 fuel 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 fans and two dozen journalists, were expected to travel 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 have been warned to behave: No sightseeing, no straying from the group. No drums, speakers, banners or Japanese flags, according to Nishitetsu Travel, which is organizing 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 match 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 football 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 already out of contention, 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 United Arab Emirates, 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 draw; of the last 15 games, Japan has won six while North Korea has won five.
In Pyongyang, Dr. Ri Tong Gyu, a researcher at North Korea's Institute of Physical Culture under the Academy of Sports Sciences, told the state-run Korean Central News Agency he expected a ''hot match'' Tuesday.
''I am sure that the DPRK footballers will score good results in the upcoming matches if they fully display their mental and physical power with efficient teamwork,'' he told KCNA. DPRK stands for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the country's official name.
For Jong and three fellow Japanese-born teammates, the game will be an interesting test of their loyalty, pitting the country of their birth, Japan, against the nation they pledge allegiance to: North Korea. The Japanese side, meanwhile, includes Tadanari Lee, a fourth-generation South Korean born in Tokyo.
Japan is home to some 600,000 ethnic Koreans, many of them descendants of those 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.
When Jong, An Yong Hak, Ryang Yong Gi and Kim Song Gi take the pitch Tuesday for North Korea, scores of fans from their ethnic Korean community will be cheering in Japan.
In Pyongyang, tickets to the match at 50,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium - a stone's throw from the spot where Kim, then an anti-Japanese guerrilla fighter, made his triumphant return from exile after Japan's defeat in World War II - will no doubt be sold out.
In communist North Korea, tickets are allocated based on work unit, but it's unclear how the lucky attendees are selected. It is believed that the government and military elite are frequently offered perks unavailable to ordinary citizens. Foreigners pay anywhere from $27 to $137 for seats.
In a sports-crazed country, football is clearly the most popular. 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 footballs 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. The women's 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 crowed 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.
Though North Korea's World Cup aspirations may be over for 2014, a different form of retribution may come Tuesday, for there would be no sweeter revenge than a victory over Japan.
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.