Football faceoff in North Korean capital

A bizarre game with no audience . . .

The South Korean men’s football team played against its North Korean counterpart at Kim Il Sung Stadium in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang on October 15 – their first match since 1990. The two teams tied with no goals in this qualifier match for the Qatar 2022 World Cup, and they will square off again in Seoul on June 4, 2020. The match drew much attention to begin with, considering the historical significance of a game between two (technically) warring states. North Korea’s bizarre administration of the match further added to the intrigue: on match day, North Korea issued a complete media blackout, and allowed no audience in the stadium, which has a maximum capacity of 50,000.

What actually went down at Kim Il Sung Stadium?

No foreign media were allowed at the match and the game was not broadcast. A low-quality recording of the game was provided by North Korea’s football association (watch here). FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, and a handful of foreign diplomats, including British Ambassador Colin Crooks and Swedish ambassador Joachim Bergstrom, were in attendance. South Korean players complained of poor treatment by the North both inside and outside the stadium, some even complaining that their hotel rooms were bugged. The match neared a brawl at one point as the South Koreans struggled with rough plays from their opponents. South Korea’s captain, Song Heung-min, said that it was “not an experience that [he] would like to remember.”

Political ramifications . . .

On October 18, South Korea’s football association officially submitted a complaint to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), arguing that North Korea violated AFC and FIFA regulations on a host’s responsibility to be politically neutral and ensure that visiting team members, media, and supporters receive entry visas without discrimination. The mistreatment of the visiting team has been widely reported in South Korea, causing a public uproar amid the lack of progress on engagement with Pyongyang and the broader denuclearization agenda. Meanwhile, North Korea’s official state media has not reported on the match at all.