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Diplomatic chill as North hosts South Korea in World Cup qualifier

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By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean football fans will be left in the dark as their national team play in North Korea for the first time in 30 years on Tuesday, with Pyongyang refusing to broadcast the World Cup qualifier live amid a return of chilled relations with Seoul.

Last year saw a flurry of sports diplomacy between the two Koreas, who fielded a joint ice hockey team and marched together at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

That set the stage for a series of summits between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s Moon Jae-in.

The two Koreas even talked about a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.

But relations have since cooled and the football teams will be competing amid a tense political backdrop with international negotiations stalled over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

In addition to the television blackout, the North has not given approval for South Korean fans to travel to the game.

South Korean media have also been blocked, with only some 30 staff members from the South’s football association (KFA) with limited communications allowed to relay information about the game, Seoul officials said.

Only home fans were expected to fill the 50,000-capacity Kim Il Sung Stadium, but no crowd was seen as of 5:00 p.m. (0800 GMT), 30 minutes before kick-off, an official at the KFA told Reuters.

North Korea has promised to provide footage of the match via DVD before the delegation heads home, the South’s unification ministry in charge of inter-Korean affairs said.

“We would need time for technical checks, but despite some delays, our people will be able to watch the game,” a ministry official said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

North Korean state media has made no mention of the qualifier.

South Korea’s squad, including Tottenham Hotspur striker Son Heung-min, arrived in the North’s capital on Monday via Beijing instead of a shorter route between the inter-Korean border, after months of no response from Pyongyang.

“There have always been at least some South Korean fans, so it should be our first time to play without any,” defender Kim Min-jae said before departing for Beijing on Monday.

“But we can overcome and play well, thinking it’s better if the stadium is crowded than empty.”

The countries last faced each other in Pyongyang in a soccer international in 1990.

The last time they met in a World Cup qualifier was in Seoul 10 years ago, a match the North lost 1-0 before accusing South Korea of poisoning their players’ food ahead of the match.

Two other qualifiers that had been scheduled for North Korea had to be switched to Shanghai after Pyongyang refused to raise the South’s flag and play the national anthem.

Ahead of Tuesday’s match some South Korean fans have expressed concern about the safety of the players while others said the lack of cooperation from North Korea shows how difficult it would be to co-host the Olympics.

“How do we co-host the Olympics when we can’t even watch one single qualifier?” said a user on Naver, a major web portal.

Another said: “Best if we win, but it’s all fine to lose, I just hope our players will return safely.”

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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