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World Cup broadcast further strains ties between North, South Korea

Talks between Pyongyang and a South Korean broadcaster are at a stalemate, and Seoul is in no mood to help after the mysterious sinking of a warship.

May 13, 2010|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Seoul — Amid increased tensions on the Korean peninsula over the March sinking of a South Korean warship, a new rift has arisen between North and South: coverage of soccer's coming World Cup.

During the 2006 World Cup, South Korea provided North Korea with a free satellite link. But this year, bickering between Pyongyang and a South Korean broadcaster means North Korean fans might be left in the dark when the world's most-watched sports event begins June 11.

The March 26 sinking of the navy corvette Cheonan, which many here believe was destroyed by a North Korean torpedo, looms over the negotiations.

"Because of the strangled relationship between South and North Korea over the Cheonan incident, we have not seen any headway," said Yang Chul-hoon, a senior executive at Seoul Broadcasting System, which holds the exclusive rights here for the games.

The soccer matches are heavily anticipated in North Korea, which this year fields its first World Cup team since its surprising success in 1966, when a collection of underdogs reached the event's quarterfinals. The South is also fielding a team.

Negotiations stalled when the North demanded that the South Korean broadcaster pay for numerous costs, including the right to cover crowd reactions in North Korea.

Any broadcast arrangement must also need the approval of the South Korean government, which appears in no mood to cater to North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il.

"We cannot say whether we would approve it or not at this stage," said Lee Jong-joo, a deputy spokeswoman for South Korea's Unification Ministry.

In 2006, then-President Roh Moo-hyun's administration paid $132,000 to provide World Cup broadcasts in North Korea as part of an attempt to reach out to the nation, which has traditionally suffered food shortages and famine.

But current President Lee Myung-bak was elected in 2008 on a pledge to get tough on North Korea.

And officials have been increasingly irked by North Korean demands involving culture and sports exchanges, according to news reports here.

A Unification Ministry official told the JoongAng Daily in Seoul that the agency had to pay the North $1 million several years ago when a South Korean musician performed in Pyongyang.

"It was such a bizarre situation," the unnamed official said. "Maybe North Korea still thinks we're a pushover."

Pyongyang has demanded that the Seoul Broadcasting System pay for rights to film North Korean fans watching their team compete. The North also expects the broadcaster to cover the expenses of its journalists heading to the games in South Africa.

The two sides have held talks twice in Beijing since August, but negotiations have broken down after the ship sinking.

The broadcaster's Yang said free transmission would not be part of any arrangement, which he said would follow guidelines regarding aid to North Korea set by the Lee administration.

john.glionna@latimes.com

Ju-min Park of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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