[VIEWPOINT]Sports diplomacy can unify us

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[VIEWPOINT]Sports diplomacy can unify us

The North Korean national soccer team arrived in Seoul Thursday. It has been exactly 12 years since their last visit.

Is this overwhelming feeling of emotions one of happiness or of regret for the time the two Koreas lost?

In 1990, when the two Koreas held one soccer game in Seoul and another in Pyeongyang, there was a euphoric mood that unification of the two Koreas was near. The following year, South and North Korea unified their soccer team. As "One Korea," they trained together and competed together at an international soccer championship.

There have been other unified Korean teams. In table tennis, a combined team was fielded at a world championship in Chiba, Japan, where the team won a trophy in their group. A unified Korean youth soccer team once made it to the quarterfinals of an international youth tournament.

In October 1993, in the World Cup preliminary rounds, the two Koreas were playing against each other. Prior to the game, North Korean team members said, "We would rather have our brethren make it to the finals." They were by no means indicating that they intended to lose intentionally to give South Korea the ticket to the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States. The situation at that time was that South Korea could make it to the finals if they beat North Korea and Japan either tied or lost to Iraq. When the first half ended in a scoreless tie, the South Korean team was nervous. But they won 3-0 and Iraq and Japan tied at two goals each. When South Korea's ticket to the 1994 World Cup was confirmed, the North Korean players congratulated the South Koreans, who were jumping up and down in great joy.

Twelve years later, the memory of that dramatic scene was of pure joy and thick blood joining us Koreans living in a divided land.

Meanwhile, the present North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, watched the entire event on television. Outraged at the loss, he reportedly ordered the North Korean soccer team banned from international events until they were accomplished enough. Seven years went by before we saw the North Korean soccer team participate in another international event.

The incident illustrates that while the South and North Korean team members do not regard each other as enemies but as brethren, the Dear Leader regarded the southern team as a competitor that they must beat.

Now another dam, closed for a long time, has opened for the two Koreas. The water gushing out may form a stream or white rapids. But we are at a turning point, where the North Korean team and its supporters will attend the 2002 Busan Asian Games.

The best medium for the two Koreas to inch closer together as brethren and a unified nation is through sports. Leaps and bounds have been made in the relations between the two nations: inter-Korean ministerial talks, reunions of separated Korean families, exchanges of cultural performances and the tourism project at Mount Geumgang. But more than anything else, sports have shown how it can bring people together.

The broadcasts of some World Cup matches by North Korea shows that the North is flexible concerning sports.

My daughter, a sixth-grader, told me that many of her classmates say, "Unification is a headache, so it is better to live as we live now." This is a generation that grew up during prosperous times and that is their outlook about reuniting as a nation with North Korea, whose population faces food shortages and whose economy is in dire straits. But it is not only our children; some adults also think that the cost of unifying and overcoming cultural differences wrought in the past five decades of division overwhelms the positive aspects of unification.

We live in a country where stories of exorbitant apartment and land prices fill the newspapers. But mind you, we live in a divided land where the song "Our Wish Is Unification" still rings in our conscience and in most of our hearts.

Let sports do its part. Just as "Dae-han-min-guk" reverberated in the southern part of the peninsula, let the rallying cheers of "Tong-il-jo-guk" (unified motherland) ring out from the inter-Korean match and the Asian Games.


The writer is a deputy sports news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Sohn Jang-hwan

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