Could sport be the solution? South Korean President Moon Jae-in apparently thinks so.
In discussions with FIFA President Gianni Infantino this week, the South Korean President suggested a “regional bloc” including both Koreas, China and Japan could join forces to host the 2030 football World Cup.
A jointly hosted tournament “could help create peace between the South and North and in the northeast region,” Moon said, according to a spokesman.
He also suggested it could lead to a European Union-style “security and economic” partnership between countries in the region.
If Moon were to achieve his vision, it would require a difficult balancing act.
Since his election in May, Moon has been trying to improve relations between Pyongyang and Seoul, amid a heightened security situation on the peninsula and ramped-up North Korean missile testing.
While Moon has said he would be willing to visit Pyongyang and meet with Kim Jong Un, last week North Korea rejected an offer by a South Korean civic group to provide anti-malaria supplies, the first cross-border exchange approved by Seoul since January 2016.
Throwing cold water on hopes from many in Moon’s circle for improved North-South relations, Pyongyang said it wouldn’t allow the visit due to new UN sanctions against it that South Korea supported.
Moon has also struggled to patch up things with China, which was angered when Moon’s predecessor approved the deployment of a US missile defense system in South Korea. Further roll-out of the THAAD system has been delayed by Moon’s administration pending an environmental assessment.
Even South Korean-Japanese relations aren’t particularly positive, amid an ongoing dispute between Seoul and Tokyo over so-called “comfort women” held by the Japanese imperial army during World War II.
Despite their longstanding differences — the two countries are still technically at war — South and North Korea have a strong shared footballing history.
The two teams regularly play each other in friendlies and at international competitions. In April, South Korea’s women’s soccer team traveled to Pyongyang for an Asian Cup qualifier.
Footballing culture is strong in the two Koreas. North Korea has qualified for the World Cup more times than China, a country with a population 54 times larger, while South Korea’s national football team is the most successful in Asia.
However, not all sporting overtures have been successful. Pyongyang boycotted the 1988 Olympics, held in Seoul, after negotiations for the two countries to potential sharing hosting duties broke down.
FIFA’s Infantino welcomed Moon’s suggestion this week, adding that while there could be difficulties in achieving his goal, “it is important to make such an effort based on belief.”
“It could send a strong message just by mentioning such a vision,” Infantino said, adding that he would bring up the matter with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting later this week.
International diplomacy aside, northeast Asia is well situated for the World Cup. South Korea, Japan and China all have extensive sporting facilities — South Korea and Japan co-hosted the successful 2002 World Cup, the first time the tournament was held in Asia. Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, while Tokyo is due to host the 2020 games.
If the three countries, along with North Korea, put forward a joint bid, it would likely be a compelling one, without the need for extensive stadium development as in Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 World Cup.
However, even if Moon manages to thread the diplomatic needles, his vision will also face strong opposing bids from the UK, and Uruguay and Argentina, which are putting forward a joint bid to host the tournament on the hundredth anniversary of the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay.
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