On Monday, 11 North Korean teenagers faced off against 11 South Korean teenagers in a football match in a small stadium seated in a bowl of sunlit hills outside the South Korean town of Chuncheon. The prize they were competing for may not mean much to many: The Air Sports Cup is hardly one of football’s most famed fixtures – in fact, it is hardly known, period.
However, at a time when North Korea and the United States teetered on the brink of war, and when all other lines of inter-Korean communication were closed, it was this no-name football tourney that provided a critical channel for sports diplomacy. It was via that channel that North Korea made it to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, held in South Korea, at virtually the last minute.
Given that the “Peace Olympics” kick-started a process of inter-Korean cooperation and reconciliation, and opened the gate for the historic summit between North Korea and the United States in Singapore in June – this eight-nation, virtually unknown U-15 Soccer tournament can claim to have undertaken one of the most significant pieces of sport diplomacy in recent history
Governor with a mission, story without a teller
“It happened on 18 December, 2017, in Kunming, China,” Choi Moon-soon recalled in a briefing and lunch with foreign reporters before Monday’s match. “That was where I met with the chief of the North Korea April 25 Sports Club, Moon Ung.”
Choi is the governor of Gangwon, the rugged, mountainous province in the northeastern corner of South Korea that hosted both the Winter Olympics and Monday’s Under-15 football match. A three-time provincial governor, an ex-reporter, a former CEO of one of South Korea’s major broadcasters, he is a member of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party. Upbeat, approachable and a keen promoter of his province, he is a fervent believer in inter-Korean rapprochement.
Moon Ung heads North Korea’s April 25 Sports Club, a national, multi-sport athletic squad named after the founding date of the isolated regime’s armed forces. Its prestigious home base is on Yanggak Island in the very heart of Pyongyang, and its (adult) team members are considered military officers
Choi and Moon were in Kunming for the third Ari Sports Cup, an Under-15, football tournament that has invited local (not national) teams from Belarus, Brazil, China, Croatia, Iran, North Korea, South Russia, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Vietnam to play in five tourneys that have taken place since 2014. Ari – it takes its name from “Arirang” a popular Korean folk song – is currently sponsored by Choi’s Gangwon Province and by Hana, a South Korean financial group.
December 2017 was tense. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump were engaged in a spiral of insults as they compared the size of their nuclear buttons, and an ominous cloud hung over the Korean Peninsula. The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics were scheduled to begin in February, but rumors circulated that some teams, fearful of imminent war, would not show up.
Moreover, amid tensions that followed North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests, all avenues of inter-Korean communication had been shut down.
“There were no channels – no diplomatic or military channels existed!” said Kim Kyung-sung, head of the quasi-governmental South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association, which coordinates South Korea’s involvement in the Ari Sports Cup, and who accompanied Choi in Kunming. “But Ari Sports managed to do it.”
It was in this strained atmosphere that Choi, as the senior South Korean government official present, offered Moon a direct invitation. “We officially asked North Korea to attend the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Games,” Moon said. Although South Korea had publically stated its wish for Pyongyang to attend Pyeongchang, there had been no official response. “That was the first time they had been asked directly,” added Kim.
Moon Ung’s position at the head of this prestigious team grants him vice ministerial rank, and a voice inside the regime – a voice which reached the top. On January 1, a surprise New Year’s message from Pyongyang electrified the world: Kim Jong Un announced that his country would participate in the Winter Games.
In the frenzy of developments that followed, vague references to the “China football channel” that Choi and Moon had utilized were largely submerged in public discourse as a participation framework was thrashed out with the International Olympic Committee, and amid the excitement of North Korea attending what would be branded in South Korea as “The Peace Olympics.“
Since then, inter-Korean relations have proceeded at a faster clip than at any time in the history of the divided peninsula, with three summits taking place between their leaders and a fourth set for December.
Action on the pitch, diplomacy off it
In an almost-packed stadium on Monday afternoon, there was razzmatazz – dance groups blasted “Gangnam Style” and other hits – and spectators had been supplied with flags previously waved at the Olympics, showing a united Korean peninsula – as well as on-pitch action as a team of Gangwon Province teens took on the North Korean April 23rd lads.
“One of our school players is in the team so I came to watch,” said Han Song-min, 16, a spectator waving a brace of unified Korea flags. “If they hold this kind of event, relations between the two Koreas will get better and that will contribute to unification of the Korean Peninsula.”
But in a country where there is both a demographic and an ideological divide over cross-border engagement, not everyone was so enamored of the visitors, or the politics that had bought them there.
“We came here to cheer on South Korea, of course!” said Yun Bok-su an 84-year-old retiree, when asked what had bought her to the match. Speaking of current inter-Korean relations, she said: “I am not sure whether it is good or not. The current government is in too much of a hurry.”
Bonhomie was on display in the VIP seats, where Choi and Kim from South Korea, and Moon from North Korea, sat together watching the match. A beaming Choi and Kim both granted sideline interviews; Moon identified himself to reporters but declined to speak.
And the overall cheery mood of the event was not dented by the end result: The visitors won 3-1.
So far, Ari Sports Cup matches have been held in China, and in both Koreas. After the Chuncheon tourney, which ends, after 20 matches, on Nov. 3, the next Ari event will take place in Wonsan, a scenic bay in eastern North Korea. The town is currently a hive of construction activity, as Pyongyang seeks to position the resort as a world-class beach vacation destination.
“It was selected by North Korea as a symbol of reform and opening – similar to Shenzhen in China,” Choi said. “They are in the process of building hotels, condominiums, golf courses and hot springs.”
In Wonsan in May, Choi hopes to add another team to the competition’s roster.
“The ultimate solution and goal should be an international approach to solving this matter,” he said. “We are considering the possibility of inviting the US to the Wonsan Games next May. We believe [the Korean Peninsula problem] boils down to this: there should be good relations between the United States and North Korea.”
Choi’s cross-border efforts extend beyond football.
In 2008, when he was the chief executive of South Korean broadcaster MBC, he was a key player in getting the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to play in Pyongyang. Now he is looking at ways to take North Korean athletes to the United States.
“There are some good boxers there, though they are not pro-boxers,” he said. “We are considering nurturing some pro boxers so they can be successful in the US market.” He also mentioned taking female North Korean golfers to the Ladies Professional Golf Association – a format in which South Korean players have done exceptionally well – though with North Korea only having two courses, “golf is at an early stage there.”
Even so, the question of how far sport diplomacy can contribute to the solution of acute political problems is a vexed one.
At present, there is a widening divergence between the rattling pace of inter-Korean relations, and the non-progress on denuclearization and confidence building between North Korea and the United States. Moreover, cross-cultural ventures – including the high-profile NY Philharmonic trip – have failed to improve relations in the past.
“That was the first time since the Korean War [during which the North’s capital was briefly captured by UN/US forces] when there was the flag of the United States on Pyongyang streets, and the US national anthem was played,” Choi said of the 2008 event. But he admitted: “Everyone believed that this would be an extraordinary event – but unfortunately, we went back to where we were.”
Even so, he hopes that in the more fecund atmosphere of the present, in which inter-Korean relations are surging, Moon and Trump seem to want a real solution to the long-running crisis. With Kim and Trump having struck up a relationship, better outcomes may lie ahead. “We hope to see a ‘Season Two’ of that  event, and I hope that by building on cultural efforts, we can make progress on the improvement of US and North Korean relations,” he said.
Geopolitical analysts – who have excellent reasons, given past history, to be cynical about forecast improvements in Pyongyang-Washington relations – might differ. However, Choi, who accompanied President Moon Jae-in during his most recent three-day summit in Pyongyang, and personally met and spoke with Kim Jong Un, believes that the latter is intent upon reform.
“When I visited North Korea before, it was almost impossible to have access to North Korean leaders, but this time we held toasts with the North Korean leader and we saw that the atmosphere had changed a lot,” he said. “There are big, tangible changes on North Korean streets.”
The once ubiquitous anti-US posters and slogans have largely disappeared, and visitors at tourist spots are no longer greeted with fawning eulogies to North Korea’s previous leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, Choi said.
Yet Choi recognized that North Korean change will be a long-term process – particularly given a belief that Kim himself faces powerful conservative pushback inside his regime against his currently more internationalist, and less bellicose policies
“I hope the international community can support North Korea,” Choi said.