Yough Pioneer Tours

North Korea vs South Korea: The Historic Football Match Played in an Empty Stadium

When the draw for the Asian section of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar was made, here at YPT we were immediately excited at some of the games we could watch in Pyongyang. Home to Sri Lanka in March 2020, home to Turkmenistan in June 2020, but the big one was no less than home to South Korea on the 15th of October 2019.

I won’t go on about the footballing history between the two sides — we’ve covered that elsewhere — except to say that in previous encounters only once have the two sides met in Pyongyang, and that was in 1990 when the North won 1-0 – their only ever victory against the South.

Other games due to be played in Pyongyang over the years have been rescheduled to Shanghai as a neutral venue, and the two teams have played each other quite a few times outside of the Korean peninsula in various tournaments.

We ran a tour to coincide with the match in Pyongyang, and at quite short notice got a good group of people together for it in Pyongyang. But then the news came, “you won’t be allowed to watch the game.” No official reasons were given and we could only speculate – is it because top leaders will be in attendance, or because of a deal for TV and access rights with a South Korean company?

The national squads of North and South Korea greet other before playing their qualifier in an empty Pyongyang stadium.
The North and South Korea national squads exchange greetings before playing their qualifier to an empty stadium.

We tried all our connections to see if we could get access, but hit an immovable brick wall.

In the end, the amazing news filtered through that the reason we couldn’t attend is because nobody was attending! The match was going to go ahead in a completely empty stadium – no tourists, no South Korean fans or journalists, no North Korean fans even!

Our tour group was at least able to watch the final performance of the Mass Games in 2019.

In fact, the FIFA president Gianni Infantino was in attendance, apparently disappointed to see there were no fans. The South Korean team, including Son Heung Min, arrived in Pyongyang via Beijing.

Possibly one of the reasons recent matches between the two teams have not been able to happen in Pyongyang is the sticking point of the raising of the southern flag and singing of the national anthem in Pyongyang – and in Kim Il Sung Stadium no less – with the two countries still technically at war. In an empty stadium, the flag was flown and the anthem was sung.

Football is the most popular sport in the DPRK and possibly South Korea alike, but this match was played in a ghost stadium, we can only imagine what that must have felt like!

And the match itself? Well, fittingly, it was a 0-0 draw with not much to report on, and it leaves both Koreas top of the group on 7 points. An anticlimactic match to a bizarre sporting occasion.

Importantly, this match should be seen in the context of current events on the peninsula – a slight worsening of relations between the two Koreas over the last six months – but also in subtle signals in intra-Korean politics. Yes, the match was not made into a big sporting spectacle for the world to see and for Koreans to enjoy together with an emphasis on the unity of Koreans everywhere. But, the fact it was allowed to happen in Pyongyang, that the southern flag was flown and national anthem was sung, and the match was not moved to a third country, suggests that waters are being tested, conversations are going on, and maybe we can look out for more positive news from the peninsula on future sporting collaborations.

In March we will be heading back to Kim Il Sung Stadium to watch the match against Sri Lanka, and in June we will be watching the match against Turkmenistan – matches which will not be affected by the vicissitudes of Korean politics.

Join us for these tours to experience 100,000 Koreans in Kim Il Sung Stadium cheering on their side!

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