- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 8, 2002

SEOUL — North and South Korea, which waged a deadly gunbattle on the high seas a few months ago, traded shots yesterday on a soccer field in front of 60,000 fans who appeared to be rooting for a tie.

They got their wish when the national soccer teams battled to scoreless draw at Seouls World Cup Stadium.

Players from both sides entered the field holding hands, and when the game finished, they marched around the field, singing a folk song while holding up the edges of a giant blue and white flag depicting a united Korea.

"This was a friendly match for fun," said Lee Jin-sop, 18, a high school student. "We didnt care who won. Were the same people."

The event came off more like a relaxed family outing than the ear-splitting spectacle that helped propel South Koreas national team to the World Cup semi-finals in June.

"This is more than just" soccer, said Guss Hiddink, the Dutch coach who became a national hero here by leading South Korea to the best-ever showing by an Asian team in World Cup competition."There are so many families separated between North and South, for so many years. Through [soccer], it seems people are beginning to make a first step," said Mr. Hiddink, who returned to watch the match.

The game came amid a flurry of recent contacts between North Korea and the outside world.This month, Pyongyang agreed to re-link a railroad to the South that had been severed since the 1950-53 Korean War.

North Korea also invited Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang for a first-ever summit between the two enemies from colonial days.In addition, Pyongyang has invited a U.S. envoy, which would reopen a dialogue with Washington that has been effectively frozen since President Bush took office.

On the diplomatic front yesterday, senior officials from the United States, Japan and South Korea backed new efforts to improve ties with the North by publicly acknowledging that the communist regime was showing signs of change.

The three allies met in Seoul yesterday ahead of Mr. Koizumis Sept. 17 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang.

A joint statement issued at the close of two days of meetings said the three "reconfirmed the importance of the international communitys engagement of North Korea."

The statement also said the three "recognized the more constructive attitude recently shown by North Korea in its talks with the international community."

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, who most likely would become the U.S. envoy to North Korea, led the talks yesterday.

The soccer match last night was part of a broader agreement between North and South Korea reached in August after months of tension.

In July, the navies of the two rivals fought a gunbattle that left casualties on both sides."That was different. They were soldiers doing their duty on the front line," said high school student Lee Kang-joon, 18, after last nights game. "This was a chance to be friends."

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