Historic rivalry as Japan heads to North Korea

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PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (AP) - There are no hot dogs, peanuts or plastic cups of beer for sale when the North Korean soccer team takes the field. There are no noisemakers, and no one does the wave.

Yet the fans are passionate in their own way, packing the stadium to the rafters, stamping and booing every time the visiting team threatens to score. From schoolchildren in Adidas tracksuits to soldiers in uniform, they jostle for a good view of the team that has become a symbol of national pride.

That pride will be at stake Tuesday when the North Korean men play Japan at Kim Il Sung Stadium in a World Cup qualifier that promises to be about far more than just soccer.

Four of the North Korean players, including star striker Jong Tae Se, were born into ethnic Korean communities in Japan, and bitterness still runs deep over Japan’s 35-year occupation of Korea, which ended in 1945.

More than six decades later, Tokyo and Pyongyang still do not have diplomatic ties. The last time the Japanese men played on North Korean soil was in 1989, when North Korea won 2-0.

Since then, relations have deteriorated: Japan has pressed North Korea to address the past abductions of Japanese citizens, and after North Korea fired ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan’s shores and tested a nuclear device in 2006, Japan joined the United States and other nations in imposing economic sanctions on North Korea as punishment.

Those sanctions have cut off much-needed sources of aid at a time when 6 million North Koreans _ a quarter of the population _ are going hungry, according to the World Food Program. Japan is also party to the stalled talks that would bring fuel aid to Pyongyang in exchange for an agreement to discontinue its nuclear program. The North Koreans walked away from those discussions two years ago, but efforts are now under way to get them back on track.

More than 200 Japanese citizens, including 150 Blue Samurai fans and two dozen journalists, were expected to travel to Pyongyang for Tuesday’s game _ the largest Japanese delegation in years. As a precaution, Tokyo has sent a team of Japanese diplomats to North Korea to watch over them.

The fans have been warned to behave: No sightseeing, no straying from the group. No drums, speakers, banners or Japanese flags, according to Nishitetsu Travel, which is organizing the three-day, $3,740 tour for the Japanese Football Association.

“In principle, (North Korea) is a country where we have travel restrictions, and we are only allowing this trip as an exception,” Osamu Fujimura, Japan’s chief cabinet spokesman, said Friday in Tokyo. “Therefore, we would like the visitors to refrain from any activity other than watching the game while in (North Korea).”

The long gap between a North Korea-Japan game in North Korea serves as a “painful reminder” of how bad relations are, said Peter Beck, a research fellow at the East-West Center who is a specialist on Japanese-North Korean issues.

In 2005, a match scheduled to be played in Pyongyang was moved to Thailand because of security worries.

However, there have been tentative moves toward improving ties. Last month, Japanese doctors traveled to North Korea to examine Korean victims of the World War II atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Both the visit and the game represent a “very modest effort” to improve ties, Beck said.

As far as the soccer goes, it would appear to be an uneven match with little bearing on the World Cup: Japan is Asia’s top-ranked team and No. 17 overall while North Korea is ranked 124th in the world by FIFA.

Japan has already secured its spot in the next round of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil while North Korea is out, its hopes of consecutive appearances dashed by back-to-back losses to Uzbekistan.

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