On Tuesday, North Korea hosted South Korea in the two countries’ first-ever competitive match in Pyongyang against one another. However, there were no reports on the game from inside the 50,000-seat Kim Il-sung stadium until Thursday. That’s because North Korea held the match under a media blackout, prohibiting journalists and also any fans from attending. Upon returning to Seoul, South Korea’s national team opened up about the game, and painted a picture of eerie silence as well as on-field violence.
Speaking at Incheon International Airport, Tottenham forward and South Korea captain Son Heung-min claimed North Korea played with unnecessary violence and were verbally abusive. From the Associated Press:
The opponents were very rough, and there were moments when very abusive language was exchanged. It was hard to concentrate on the match because you were thinking about avoiding injury first … It’s an accomplishment that we returned from a game like that without injury.
Son also admitted that, while he believed South Korea were the stronger team, North Korea’s physical play disrupted his side’s rhythm and mentality.
South Korean general manager Choi Young-il confirmed that the Korean Football Association (KFA) will consider submitting a formal complaint against North Korea, particularly for the decision to block media from attending and reporting on the match. While there was no live broadcast of the match, North Korea did provide a video to the KFA. A South Korean official said the video was of poor quality and therefore unusable for broadcast.
One bit of video did get out, thanks to Joachim Bergström, Sweden’s ambassador to North Korea. In it, there appears to be a scuffle between the teams, though it is quickly broken up by the referee.
One of the few people allowed to attend the game was FIFA president Gianni Infantino. He said his delegation was “disappointed to see there were no fans in the stands.” Infantino went on to confirm the South Korean accounts regarding journalists and the live feed of the game:
We were surprised by this and by several issues related to its live broadcast and problems with visas and access for foreign journalists.
Prior to the match, South Korea were expecting a raucous, fully North Korean audience in the stadium, but were surprised to see it empty, per Choi:
I have never seen something like this in soccer before.
We got there an hour and a half early and kept thinking that the gate will open and a crowd of 50,000 would pour in. But the gate never opened until the end.
North Korea’s main news outlet, the Korean Central News Agency, did report on the event, saying “the game of attacks and counterattacks ended in a draw 0-0.” Given the absence of video footage and reports from journalists and fan accounts from inside, the soccer world will have to take their word on it.
With the two countries still technically at war, and with relations not particularly strong at the moment (North Korea did not allow their opponents to raise their flag nor play their national anthem at the game), one could’ve expected drama. Less expected was how the news coming from the event would be so bizarrely muted.
North Korea and South Korea will face off again on June 4 for another World Cup qualifier, though this time in the South, where press and fans will be permitted inside the stadium.