By Hyonhee Shin
SEOUL (Reuters) - When South Korea begins competing for soccer glory at the FIFA World Cup in Russia on Monday, North Koreans will be cheering for the team, defectors living in the South say.
Soccer is one of the most popular sports among ordinary North Koreans, along with volleyball and table tennis, and they will most likely be watching South Korea's matches on television, according to the people who have fled to the South.
"Soccer is highly cherished as a sport that boosts solidarity and collectivity, which are crucial elements in North Korean society," said one defector.
This year's matches are likely to be aired in the North, possibly with a slight time delay, because the World Cup has historically been among the most viewed TV programs, the defectors say.
Even when relations between the North and South have been difficult, people on the North would support their fellow Koreans, said Hong Kang-cheol, another defector. "We would of course be rooting for the South, even when inter-Korean relations are frosty," said Hong.
In recent months, Pyongyang and Seoul have been holding talks to reduce tensions over the North's nuclear weapons programme and improve ties.
Sports has played a central role in that thaw, with North Korea's participation in February's Winter Olympics in South Korea setting the stage for subsequent summits between the nation's leader Kim Jong Un and the leaders of China, South Korea, and then last week with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore.
The two Koreas held talks on sports exchanges on Monday in the border village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone, but World Cup coverage in the North was not on the agenda, according to officials at South Korea's unification ministry.
North Korea's Kim, a basketball fan who counts former NBA star Dennis Rodman as a friend, has promoted sport as part of his ambition to turn the country into a "sport power."
North Korea failed to qualify for this year's World Cup, while the South advanced to its ninth consecutive World Cup and was set to face Sweden in the opening Group F game at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium in western Russia on Monday.
MOON PLAN FOR 2030
Kim Yong Nam, the North's ceremonial head of state as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People's Assembly, attended the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested a joint hosting of the 2030 FIFA World Cup with other Northeast Asian countries at a meeting last year with FIFA chief Gianni Infantino.
Chung Mong-gyu, head of the Korea Football Association in Seoul, renewed the offer to North Korea, China and Japan while visiting Moscow for a FIFA general assembly earlier this month, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.
Moon has said soccer is the "most democratic and fairest" sport that can contribute to improving inter-Korean ties.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Jeongmin Kim and Josh Smith; Editing by Martin Howell)