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Inter-Korea engagement is a game changer, South Koreans say

By Elizabeth Shim
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Inter-Korea engagement is a game changer, South Koreans say
North Korean (L) and South Korean (R) labor union soccer teams played against each other on Saturday. Photo by Elizabeth Shim/UPI

SEOUL, Aug. 13 (UPI) -- Expanding civic exchange and lifting North Korea sanctions is desirable, despite significant risks that remain amid North Korea's refusal to denuclearize on U.S. terms, South Koreans attending the first inter-Korea workers' soccer tournament in three years told UPI.

The spectators, many of them representing various labor unions across the South, braved a scorching heat wave on Saturday to watch the games at Seoul World Cup Stadium.

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Two North Korean and two South Korean labor union teams played against each other in separate matches. The North Koreans won both matches as more than 30,000 South Koreans watched, many of them cheering loudly when the North Koreans scored goals.

Lee Mi-jeong, chairwoman of the Seoul branch of the national women's labor union, told UPI the scores are irrelevant -- and that she had come to enjoy the event and cheer both North and South Korean sides.

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"They are just laborers who enjoy playing football. It doesn't matter" who wins or loses, Lee said. "You feel a sense of closeness, because there is no need for a translator."

Moments before the kickoff, visiting North Korea labor officials, including chairman of North Korea's General Federation of Trade Unions, Ju Yong Gil, promoted the signing of the Panmunjom Declaration.

"There will no longer be war on this [peninsula]," Ju said, speaking directly to South Korean spectators. "And at the forefront will be the [Korean] worker, creating a path to great history."

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Lee, the labor organizer, said more civic exchange and communication with North Koreans is needed, though she said she did not expect to interact with the North Koreans anytime soon.

"The situation has completely changed this year, from last year," Lee said. "If it is peaceful now, and peace becomes the norm, the quality of life improves and exchange becomes the norm. Unification doesn't have to be seen as a long process."

But Lee also said she was "not sure about North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons."

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"I'll leave that to the people above," she said.

Inter-Korea engagement 'good for all'

The tournament on Saturday was a rare opportunity for South Koreans to watch North Koreans compete on South Korean soil.

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The North Koreans won both games. When a South Korean player fell, and a North Korean player helped him back up to his feet, cheers rang throughout the stadium.

The kind of camaraderie on display at the tournament is what is needed to push through civic-led initiatives, said one activist attending the games.

Jeong Seong-hee, who is leading efforts for a citizen-funded inter-Korea railroad, said collective will is needed to bring about unification.

"Our mission is to build half the [inter-Korea] railroad through civic efforts," Jeong said, referring to a consensus on railroad cooperation reached between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Railroads have been promoted in Seoul since April 27, but the project is under scrutiny from engagement skeptics. In June, South Korean officials defended railroad cooperation after announcing an agreement with the North to conduct a joint study on modernizing train transportation.

"The South Korean government is pursuing the connecting of the railroad, but because of sanctions it is facing obstacles," Jeong said. "The purpose of my activism is to bring together the will of South Koreans to quickly realize this project."

The activist also said improving inter-Korea ties could "lift up" U.S.-North Korea relations.

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On Monday, South and North Korea delegations announced a decision to hold a leaders' summit in Pyongyang sometime in September.

Jeong also said Moon appears to be driving engagement, but the United States is the "main agent" for realizing peace on the peninsula, while the "job of the Moon government is to adjust, coordinate."

"There's a limit to what Moon can do," Jeong said.

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