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A Window on N. Korea Opens Up in Soccer Field

Asia: North's coverage of the South's advance in the World Cup is seen as a bid to stress their bond.

June 27, 2002|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — The advance of South Korea's soccer team to the semifinals of the World Cup before its loss Tuesday to Germany provided more than just a rousing good time for fans. It also gave North Korea watchers another window into the isolated Communist regime's mood, mentality and motivation.

As usual, the North Korean government walked a fine line when depicting the outside world to its isolated people, say analysts who make their living poring over the regime's every expression and gesture.

The coverage of South Korea's surprising ascent to the ranks of the top four teams suggested a certain shared pride in what fellow Koreans have accomplished against some of the greatest soccer powers.

By airing on Sunday an edited, hourlong version of South Korea's victory last week over Italy--a lengthy broadcast by North Korean standards and narrated, analysts say, quite evenhandedly--the Communist regime sought to stress the common bond.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 29, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 348 words Type of Material: Correction
Socialist festival--An article in Thursday's Section A incorrectly stated when North Korea held a World Socialist Youth Festival. It was 1989.

"We've got the same faces," said Moon Chung In, a political science professor here with Yonsei University. "Ultimately blood is thicker than water."

On the political level, some add, the regime may also want to get a bit closer to South Korea, given the harder line and "axis of evil" accusations the North has faced from Washington since Sept. 11.

At one point during the broadcast, a North Korean commentator even sided openly with the South Korean team after Italian player Francesco Totti was penalized for faking an injury. "The referee is correct," he said.

The North's decision to air the Italy match was also significant in a nation where symbolism and historical precedent are extremely important. Not only did it show an Asian power beating a Western power whose roots go back millenniums, analysts say, but it also created a historical tie with North Korea's own surprising defeat of Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

In something of a dig, however, there also was a subtle message that it took the southern cousins 36 years to match the North's own accomplishment, analysts say.

South Korea refused to televise the Communist nation's World Cup triumph.

"In 1966 we were in the peak of the Cold War," said Suh Dong Man, a political science professor with South Korea's Sangji University. "Under President Park Chung Hee, it was out of the question."

Sunday's broadcast also acknowledged for the first time on the air in the North that South Korea is playing co-host to one of the world's premier sports events. The regime generally has seen any such accomplishment as a challenge begging for a rebuttal. Thus the North, which held a World Socialist Youth Festival in 1988 during the Seoul Olympics, organized the Arirang cultural festival this year to counter the World Cup glory.

Granted, North Korea's recognition of the South came weeks after the games started. Still, any recognition is significant, analysts say, particularly when reinforced by footage of South Korea's modern stadiums and enthusiastic, well-behaved crowds.

That said, the regime in Pyongyang, the North's capital, was careful in the broadcast to avoid putting South Korea in too positive a light, analysts say, lest that highlight its own inadequacies, start its people thinking or deviate from the official line.

Close-up crowd shots that might show the affluence, individuality and character of the South Koreans were heavily edited. Although there were shots of the nation's flag, North Korea also removed the crowd noise, including the spirited singing of "Great Republic of Korea."

The North aired South Korea's second-round victory five days after the fact and a day after the team won its third-round victory against Spain.

A charitable analysis suggests that North Korea needed the time to edit the tape and "borrow" the footage from South Korean television without paying royalties. Another school of thought says the North waited to see whether the team won the next round before deciding to air the earlier game.

North Korea may have absolute control over the media, but it still must compete against word of mouth.

This puts the state in something of a bind. If it doesn't announce big news events before citizens hear about them, its credibility is undermined. And South Korean soccer victories are just the sort of news that travels like wildfire.

"North Korea has steel walls, but they're not that high," said Park Hak Soon, a North Korea specialist with the Sejong Institute, a South Korea-funded think tank. "People talk."

Analysts say they're now closely watching whether North Korea airs other South Korean games that clearly show Seoul surpassing the North's past glory.

It's too early to read too much into this week's broadcast, they add, or what it says about proposed U.S.-North Korean talks or North-South relations. The Communist regime hasn't exactly been forthcoming with Seoul lately on such issues as economic relations, family reunions or tourism.

Still, for many in South Korea, a bit of light at the end of the stadium tunnel is welcome.

"Of course North Korea no doubt closely considered the political impact of this broadcast both internally and vis-a-vis South Korea," said Lee Jong Seok, a North Korea specialist with the Sejong Institute. "Still, I thought their presentation was pretty objective and friendly."

Chi Jung Nam in The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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