- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

Next month, the biggest event of the world's most popular sport soccer's World Cup kicks off in Seoul. The sport that Pele dubbed "The Beautiful Game" will draw a cumulative TV audience of some 42 billion people during World Cup month. For the opening match in Korea, the actual viewing audience could be as much as 2 billion one-third of mankind.
Given such intense scrutiny, the organizers behind the co-hosting experiment obviously fear failure on a global scale. Not for nothing were the then-protagonists myself included photographed with awkward, frozen smiles on their faces when the co-hosting compromise was announced by FIFA, football's governing body, in 1996. After all, Korea and Japan have never before cooperated on anything of such significance.
With the world's spotlight on us, the first-ever co-hosts and the first Asian World Cup will have to work together more intensively than at any time since Korea established a democratic government in 1945.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Korea-Japan relationship, the challenge of co-organizing a soccer tournament may seem insignificant. In fact, while the logistical and infrastructure challenges are immense, they are arguably dwarfed by the cultural and political ones. Building stadiums is a lot less complicated than building trust and, potentially, a new era in the Korea-Japan relationship.
In fact, the Korean and Japanese committees have cooperated surprisingly well. We have had our differences but that the 2002 FIFA World Cup will be an organizational triumph will be testimony to our ability to cooperate.
The co-hosting compromise was accepted by both sides with reasonable aplomb though it was not the perfect result for either following bidding campaigns that had pretty much reflected the emotional divide between Korea and Japan. However, when the decision was made and emotion was tempered by rationality there was a belief that this unexpected co-operative project could lead to a new phase in our relationship.
It is often said a country can choose its allies, but not its neighbors. During more than 2,000 years of relations, Korea and Japan have enjoyed significantly more bilateral good times than bad. Unfortunately, the enmity that overshadows past amity became embedded as long ago as the Hideyoshi invasion of Korea in the 16th century. More recently, in the first half of the last century, Japan occupied Korea again and once more with brutal consequences.
It was not until 1965, under American auspices, that Korea and Japan normalized relations. Since then, the relationship has seen peaks and troughs. But, in reality, the scars have gone unhealed; Koreans and other Asians have never felt that the Japanese have faced up to their past.
So can the "Beautiful Game" make the breakthrough? The cynics who say an event like the World Cup cannot really make a difference are ignoring the role of sport in recent history, particularly in the North Asian region. Ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S.A. and China was a turning point in that relationship. The Seoul Olympics in 1988 ended a cycle of tit-for-tat boycotts that had reflected Cold War animosity. It is also interesting to note that the sporting spotlight which North Asia enjoys this year will continue through to Beijing's hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics. It is hard to imagine the Beijing Olympiad not having a significant effect on the Chinese sociopolitical structure and China's relations with its Asian neighbors and the rest of the world.
Then, there is North Korea. We had held out the hope that the North would somehow be involved in the World Cup, even hosting some matches. Clearly, this is not going to happen now but it is worth noting that it is through soccer that the North Koreans have been most visible on the sporting stage recently. In fact, they have won both a men's tournament in Thailand and the Asian women's championship. It was also soccer that brought South and North together in 1991, forming a joint team at the World Youth Championships.
Soccer is without doubt a modern common language among young Asians. With Korea and Japan co-hosting, and with China also participating, this is a fine opportunity for the three most influential nations in Northeast Asia to start sharing a sense of community.
What is clear is that the young people of Korea and Japan the same people who, by the way, are our most vocal soccer fans are taking a second look at one another.
This younger generation perhaps finds it easier to let go of the past. And it is interesting to study how, while diplomats and politicians can make developing or rebuilding a relationship a frustratingly complex process, our soccer fans make it seem easy. Korean and Japanese national team supporters have a strong but extremely friendly rivalry.
One commentator recently suggested that the greatest sign of the maturing of relations between Korea and Japan at the upcoming World Cup would be if Korean soccer fans cheered Japanese victories and vice versa. While the relationship between the two countries' supporters is good, only a non-soccer fan and/or a naive idealist would suggest such a thing. It's as unlikely as the Scots cheering an English victory or the Argentineans urging on the Brazilians.
But as for taking the historical sting out of the Korea-Japan relationship, we are, thanks to soccer and our co-hosted World Cup, getting there. It may be just a game but the results can be beautiful.

Chung Mong-Joon is co-chairman of the Korean Organizing Committee for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan, vice president of FIFA, president of the Korean Football Association, and a member of the Republic of Korea's National Assembly.


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