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ANALYSISFIFA chief's remarks over World Cup in North Korea raises eyebrows

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Western sanctions on Kim regime are still working, Seoul maintains hardline stance on Pyongyang

By Kim Yoo-chul

Historically, global sporting events such as the Olympics have played a considerable role in terms of advancing inter-Korean relations.

The two Koreas earlier talked about sending joint Olympics teams for the Tokyo Olympics, though North Korea decided to pull out because of COVID-19 concerns, dampening Seoul's hopes of inter-Korean sports diplomacy.

During the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, South and North Korea formed a unified women's ice hockey team. Political analysts said the former Moon Jae-in administration used the Games as an opportunity to move forward with his detente with the North Korean regime.

While such efforts didn't translate into substantial progress regarding peacebuilding and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, these cases illustrated that global sporting events can be regarded as a board that allows key representatives of hostile countries to be involved in talks. Government officials in Seoul said that the actual effectiveness of the sports diplomacy between the Koreas could have been evaluated as limited but quite perceptible.

Now, FIFA President Gianni Infantino's remarks over the possibility of North Korea hosting a World Cup in the future are raising eyebrows. The FIFA chief earlier said that any nation is eligible to host an event by revealing his past trips to North Korea, where he asked North Korean officials if the North Korean side were ready to host a part of a Women's World Cup with South Korea.

The FIFA leader's comments come as the World Cup is now underway in Qatar with a lot of observers criticizing the human rights violations and the exploitation of migrant workers in the tiny Arab country.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino waits ahead of a working lunch at the G-20 Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 15, 2022. AP-Yonhap
FIFA President Gianni Infantino waits ahead of a working lunch at the G-20 Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 15, 2022. AP-Yonhap

What is the genuine point behind the FIFA head's recent comments and can North Korea actually host a World Cup or even co-host major international sporting events with South Korea?

Political rhetoric

"Former President Moon's idea to co-host the 2032 Summer Olympics, a plan initially agreed upon with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018, failed to win substantial support from key members countries in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because of a lack of progress in inter-Korean relations since the fallout in Hanoi, the North's missile tests and concerns over the possibility for North Korea using economic benefits from the event as a source of money to strengthen its nuclear capabilities," said a former presidential aide to Moon, who is knowledgeable on the matter.

"After the collapse of the talks in Hanoi, Washington focused more on tightening economic sanctions on Pyongyang and didn't support the South's idea of assisting the North with some of the costs for Olympic facilities in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea. After the failed blockbuster summit between then U.S. President Donald Trump and the North's Kim in Hanoi, South Korea became trapped by Washington's conflicts with Beijing," he said. The U.S. boycotted the Beijing Winter Olympics due to diplomatic reasons.

U.S. companies are a crucial source for the IOC's revenue as NBC is said to have paid $7.75 billion for the broadcast rights to the Olympic Games through 2032, the IOC's top commercial contract. Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa and P&G are among the IOC's top commercial sponsors.

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang and the two Koreas have long been in a stalemate with the small amount of detente for talks that existed between 2018 and 2019, now a thing of the past. No words from the North Korean leader Kim about denuclearization have been announced since President Yoon Suk-yeol took power in May this year.

Former President Moon tried to break the status quo in East Asia. While the 2018 Winter Olympics represented a chance for diplomacy to ease tensions on the peninsula, the Moon administration failed to replicate such success in the next Olympic Games, which were held in Beijing and Tokyo.

However, in stark contrast, the incumbent Yoon administration is relying on increasing "extended deterrence" by deepening cooperation on security with Washington and Tokyo. Also, Pyongyang has no interest in accepting President Yoon's "audacious" initiative, premised on the idea of phased and reciprocal denuclearization of North Korea in exchange for massive economic assistance. Therefore, there won't be any actual change from earlier failed efforts for denuclearization talks sought by former U.S. President Trump and former President Moon.

The North's official media agency, Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) recently reported that its leader, Kim Jong-un, has set his regime's ultimate goal as possessing the world's most powerful nuclear force. Security analysts in Washington said that the North is "very near" to conducting its seventh nuclear test.

Kim Jong-un has directly inspected a test of its latest Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

This photo released on Nov. 19, 2022, by the North Korean government shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, inspecting what it says is a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile at Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Nov. 18, 2022. UPI-Yonhap
This photo released on Nov. 19, 2022, by the North Korean government shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center, inspecting what it says is a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile at Pyongyang International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, Nov. 18, 2022. UPI-Yonhap

"Unless there are improvements in inter-Korean relations and reduced geopolitical concerns, the international community won't support any ideas such as the co-hosting of major sporting events between the two Koreas, including a World Cup. There will be a lot of controversies if the two Koreas co-host the World Cup, for example. Concerns about the North's poor human rights record and the whereabouts of revenue would surge. These are the top factors that shouldn't be ignored by FIFA and the IOC," a government official said on the condition of anonymity, echoing the ongoing controversies regarding Qatar's human rights issues in this year's World Cup.

Pyongyang has been banned by the United Nations Security Council from conducting nuclear tests and testing ballistic missiles. However, the United Nations reports said that despite ongoing economic sanctions, the North could be able to continue enhancing its nuclear and ballistic missile-related infrastructure.

The government official went on to say that the FIFA chief's comments that he is open to North Korea hosting a World Cup needs to be interpreted as "political rhetoric" in terms of defending Qatar amid controversies including its alleged human rights abuses as conditions aren't right for the North to handle major sporting events. Infantino had used a recent press conference to urge for a sense of understanding of different beliefs.

President Yoon's poor job satisfaction rating is also viewed as another challenging factor because winning public support is necessary to develop any ideas about co-hosting major international sporting events such as the World Cup with North Korea, for example, said political analysts. Yoon's job approval rate remains at 30 percent, from Nov. 22 to 24, in a survey conducted by Gallup Korea of 1,002 people. 62 percent of respondents said Yoon wasn't doing a good job.

"Because Yoon's approval rating hasn't been solid since he took power, he and his ruling People Power Party (PPP) can't shift their hardline stance against North Korea until the general election in 2024 because they need to win clear and solid support from domestic conservatives, most of whom don't like engagement-centric North Korean policies," said Lee Jong-hoon, a Seoul-based political commentator.

Korean Sport and Olympic Committee Chairman (KSOC) Lee Kee-heung said that the organization is mulling over the possibility of a bid for the 2036 Olympics Games with Seoul and the country's largest port city of Busan being considered as candidate cities. Lee added a kick-start of the possible bid will only come after reviewing the public's opinion.


Kim Yoo-chul yckim@koreatimes.co.kr


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