S. Korea set to greet N. Korea’s youth footballers

SEOUL, Oct. 31 (Yonhap) — The South Korean government on Friday approved a visit by North Korea’s teenage football players next week to join an international competition to be held in a border town in the South.

A group of 32 athletes and officials is scheduled to arrive here on Sunday via Beijing and participate in the inaugural U-15 football games in Yeoncheon, 62 kilometers north of Seoul, according to the unification ministry.

The three-day event slated to open Friday will draw five other teams from South Korea, Uzbekistan and China.

“The government’s basic position is to endorse a trip associated with non-political exchange including football and other sports,” the ministry’s deputy spokeswoman, Park Soo-jin, said at a press briefing. “The government, in cooperation with relevant authorities, plans to provide support so that the competition can be staged smoothly.”

It would mark the resumption of inter-Korean youth football exchange in the South’s territory after six years despite continued military tensions on the peninsula.

The two sides used to hold youth football matches on a regular basis from 2006 to 2008 in their capitals of Seoul and Pyongyang.

The upcoming games will be hosted by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation under the auspices of the unification ministry, Gyeonggi Province and Yeoncheon County.

“Sports is the most effective means and peaceful tool to resolve conflicts between countries and achieve social unity,” the council said. “The importance of the youth football games has grown in that such an event can help develop South-North ties in the direction of mutual benefits.”

In particular, the North’s delegation plans to stay in the newly built Inter-Korean Youth Exchange Center in Yeoncheon.

In 2012, the South’s unification ministry began the construction of the center aimed at promoting cross-border exchange between younger generations. The formal opening ceremony is slated for Nov. 12.

The center will be used for education purposes to enhance understanding on reunification and also serve as a venue for inter-Korean contact and the reunion of separated families if needed, officials said.