Unification Ministry refuses permission for inter-Korean football game
Denial raises questions about government’s claim that it will work for dialogue between the Koreas
By Kang Tae-ho, senior staff writer On Jan. 21, South Korean government refused the first request for permission to contact the North this year. Government officials stated the grounds for the refusal were ongoing deliberations in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) about sanctions in response to North Korea’s December 2012 missile launch. With the presidential transition committee in operation, this is inconsistent with Park Geun-hye’s stated aim to “open the door to dialogue between the two Koreas.” On Jan. 14, the city of Incheon and Gangwon Province requested permission to contact the North regarding an inter-Korean football game scheduled to take place in Hainan Province, China, from Jan. 24 to 27. In response to the request, Ministry of Unification spokesperson Kim Hyung-suk said, “Since the UNSC is currently discussing sanctions, the Ministry deems it inappropriate and has therefore made its final decision to deny permission to make contact.” “This is a measure that is needed to produce a change in North Korea’s attitude towards provocative action,” Kim added. “We are sending a stern message.” However, this creates an obstacle for the incoming government, which has expressed its intention to resume dialogue between North and South. In addition, since the decision prohibits a sports game from taking place in a third country, critics are asking whether even the “soft contact” proposed by Unification Minister Ryu Woo-ik is being abandoned. After the game received substantial coverage in the press at the beginning of 2013, the Ministry of Unification requested that the game be delayed until after Park Geun-hye’s presidential inauguration on Feb. 25. On Jan. 17, only one week before the game’s scheduled date, they sent an official document. In response to this, Incheon and Gangwon Province abandoned their original plan to have Incheon Mayor Song Young-gil and Gangwon Governor Choi Moon-soon attend the game in person, proposing instead to only have the game in the stadium without an opening ceremony. They expected the Ministry would grant them conditional permission, but instead it flatly refused the request. Despite the Unification Ministry’s rejection of the request for contact, Incheon and Gangwon have indicated that they are planning to take part in the event as originally planned, since the players are already in place and since this is an international tournament participated in by China, Thailand, and other countries. A business owner working with inter-Korean economic cooperation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, was critical of the Ministry’s decision. “The current government only has one month left in its term, and yet it is trying to drive a stake in the heart of North-South relations before it goes. If the transition committee approves this, relations between North and South in the future will be no different than they have been under Lee Myung-bak.” A similar opinion was expressed by a senior figure at an organization that provides humanitarian aid to the North. “The Lee administration got off on the wrong foot starting with the transition committee and messed things up for the past five years. We should be viewing that as an example of what not to be doing. It‘s worrying that the transition committee isn’t doing anything about this.” The 15-and-under football team with Incheon United (Incheon Gwangseong Middle School) is participating in the 3rd Incheon Peace Cup Youth Football Tournament, while the women’s football team at Gangwon Provincial College is taking part in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics Commemorative International Young Women’s Football Tournament. Both events are being hosted by the Hainan Province Football Association in China and jointly sponsored by the Korea Global Sports Network. On the North Korean side, male and female youth teams that are part of the DPRK army’s April 25th Athletics Corps will be in the tournament. Four teams altogether, including delegations from China and Thailand, will be competing in tournament format through Jan. 27.