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Why North Korea cancelled its World Cup qualifier with Japan

North Korea’s abrupt cancellation of a World Cup qualifier with Japan recently was motivated both several factors, including its diplomatic strategy toward Japan, Daily NK has learned.

“The soccer game was canceled out of concern that revealing too much about the domestic situation might not have a positive impact on our international image. Another reason was that we’re still working on our diplomatic approach to Japan,” a high-level source in North Korea told Daily NK on Apr. 12, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In other words, North Korean authorities were worried that the disorderly streets of Pyongyang and its shops and residents would be shown to the world by foreign reporters in the country to cover the qualifier.

North Korea also appears to have concluded that it would not be in North Korea’s interest to have high-level Japanese officials visit North Korea for the soccer game, given the ongoing discussion of a possible Pyongyang-Tokyo summit.

North Korea was originally scheduled to play Japan at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Stadium on Mar. 26 in the fourth Group B match of the second round of Asian qualifying for the 2026 World Cup (to be held in Canada, Mexico and the U.S.). But five days before the match, Pyongyang unilaterally informed the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that it could not host the match and asked the AFC to choose another venue.

The AFC explored the possibility of holding the North Korea-Japan match at a neutral venue, but ultimately decided that it could not protect the athletes and fans at such short notice and canceled the match. As a result, a FIFA disciplinary committee met on Mar. 24 and handed North Korea an automatic 0-3 defeat for forfeiting the match.

North Korea did not say exactly why it canceled the match, and the Japanese press even speculated that it was because of an outbreak of Streptococcal Toxic Shock Syndrome (STSS) in Japan.

But North Korea had given no indication that it intended to cancel the home game when the AFC conducted an on-site inspection in Pyongyang in early March.

“We are confident in our infectious disease management. In fact, we understand the importance of our football team participating in international tournaments. We weren’t worried about an outbreak; we just took a loss to achieve our diplomatic goals,” the high-level source said.

North Korea working to improve relations with Japan

Amid these developments, North Korea is working on a strategy to increase its diplomatic outreach to Japan, with the goal of getting Japan to ease sanctions against the North or provide economic aid as a form of reparations for its colonial rule over Korea.

“The party is currently making strategic calculations to create diplomatic space by improving relations with Japan. It hopes to use Japan to gain leverage in negotiations with the U.S.,” the source said.

According to the source, a summit with Japan is part of a diplomatic strategy for a presumed return to the negotiating table with the U.S. that is being drawn up by North Korea’s foreign ministry and the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

The critical question, however, is whether North Korea and Japan can reconcile their differences over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui and Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, have both stated that the abductee issue has already been resolved and have promised to refuse any talks with Japan if the abductee issue is raised. But for Japan, the abductee issue is a key reason for making overtures to the North.

When asked about a summit with Japan in a CNN interview before his visit to the U.S. on Apr. 7, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the Japanese government is making high-level contacts with North Korea with the aim of resolving unresolved issues and establishing stable bilateral relations. “Unresolved issues” here appear to be a reference to the abductee issue and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles.

Kishida’s repeated mention of contact with North Korea has rekindled interest in the possibility of a Pyongyang-Tokyo summit.

Translated by David Carruth. Edited by Robert Lauler. 

Daily NK works with a network of sources living in North Korea, China, and elsewhere. Their identities remain anonymous for security reasons. For more information about Daily NK’s network of reporting partners and information-gathering activities, please visit our FAQ page here.

Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

April 17, 2024 at 08:38AM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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