If a soccer match is played in an empty 50,000-seat stadium with no media coverage, did it even really happen? For the North and South Korean men’s national soccer teams, it may as well not have, as the two sides played to a scoreless draw in an AFC second-round 2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup qualifier match at an empty Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang Tuesday.
As there was no outside live media coverage, fans outside of North Korea had to rely on the (South) Korean Football Association (KFA) posting updates it received via email from two of its employees in attendance.
South Korea had attempted several times to secure media coverage and send a delegation of fans to Pyongyang ahead the match, but its efforts were ignored by the North, amid frosty relations between the two Koreas as nuclear diplomacy on the peninsula has stalled.
“There was no response from North Korea, and South Korea find it regrettable and sad,” said Lee Sang-min, a spokesperson of South Korea's Unification Ministry in an Associated Press (AP) report published Tuesday.
But even though the South Korean side went into the match knowing that it would not be broadcast back home and there would be no South Korean fans cheering them on, they were surprised to find that no North Korean fans were there either.
“Photos sent by our employees show not a single person in the stands,” KFA official Park Jae-sung told the AP. “We are not sure why the North is doing this,” he said.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino flew to Pyongyang for the match, as it was the first time the two sides were meeting in Pyongyang since an international friendly match nearly three decades ago.
The FIFA website quoted the president as saying, “I was looking forward to seeing a full stadium for such a historic match but was disappointed to see there were no fans in the stands.”
“We were surprised by this and by several issues related to its live broadcast and problems with visas and access for foreign journalists,” he added.
South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced that North Korean authorities had agreed to give the Southern delegation a “DVD containing video footage” of the event prior to their departure on Wednesday.
Pyongyang “afraid to lose”
Several North Korea experts told RFA’s Korean Service they believed the stadium was kept empty because North Korean authorities were afraid to lose in front of what should have been a sellout crowd.
“This tells you how paranoid the Pyongyang regime is,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rigths in North Korea.
“Obviously they are afraid that their team might lose, of course the game ended in a tie 0-0. Probably, they were afraid that the team might lose to South Koreans. They’ve done this many years, announcing the results later [only] if North Korea wins,” he added.
Scarlatiou said North Korea’s behavior was “ridiculous and unacceptable.”
“This goes beyond inter-Korean relations. This is an international match. This is a World Cup qualifier,” he said.
David Maxwell of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies was also critical of North Korean authorities, saying that banning normal media coverage for a soccer match showed “North Korea’s true colors.”
Maxwell said that high-profile events like Tuesday’s match could be controlled only in North Korea.
“It is also one reason why it is unlikely Kim [Jong Un] will visit the South. Neither he nor [South Korean President] Moon [Jae-in] will be able to control the response of the Korean people in the South,” he said.
“Kim cannot be disrespected in any way and must always be in control of the media and its narrative and coverage of him,” Maxwell added.
Both sides currently sit atop group H after three matches played, with two wins and one draw.
They are scheduled to face off again in June 2020 in South Korea.
While the match was the first inter-Korean men's tilt inside North Korea since 1990, North Korea has had “home” matches against the South in the years since, most recently during the qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA Men’s World Cup.
But in those qualifiers, the North refused to allow the South Korean flag and anthem in Pyongyang, so North Korea’s home matches were played in Shanghai.
The rivalry has had its ups and downs as far as controversy. During the same 2010 qualifying campaign, the two sides drew three times, but the South won the fourth, in Seoul. The North blamed its loss on the South, saying that North Korean players had been deliberately poisoned by adulterated food, and asked FIFA to investigate.
Whether the two sides will face off again in Pyongyang soon depends on the results of the 2022 qualifying campaign’s second round. Should both Koreas qualify, they could again be drawn into the same group in round three, which would necessitate another home and away inter-Korean series.
While North Korea has only qualified for the FIFA Men’s World Cup twice, in 1966 and 2010, South Korea has qualified 10 times, first in 1954, then in nine straight between the 1986 and 2018 tournaments, including the 2002 tournament, which it co-hosted with Japan.
Additional reporting by RFA's Korean Service.