SEOUL, Oct. 15 (UPI) -- After temporarily waiving U.N. sanctions on sports equipment, North and South Korean athletes faced off for a rare soccer match in Pyongyang on Tuesday that ended in a tie.
The 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifying game, which was barred from international coverage and live-streaming, is the latest example of world leaders leveraging sports diplomacy to keep inter-Korean relations open. North and South Korean last competed North of the 38th parallel in 1990.
"Every interaction helps, and anything that brings the two Koreas together is good, because that channel has broken down to the detriment of everyone concerned," John Delury, a North Korea analyst and associate professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, told UPI. "But you know, on its own, a single soccer game might not do much. It's hard to say."
Talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have broken down in recent months, with Pyongyang going so far as to refuse 50,000 tons of food assistance from Seoul earlier this summer, despite a serious drought. Meanwhile, North Korea has turned up the international pressure by launching short-range missile tests and other projectiles more than eight times in recent months.
Matters only seemed to get worse when nuclear talks broke down between North Korea and the United States in early October. North Korea's primary negotiator, Kim Myong Gil, said discussions with the United States had not "fulfilled our expectations," while U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said that the two countries had "good discussions" over the course of nearly nine hours.
It's unclear what, if any, impact Tuesday's soccer game will have on inter-Korean relations, but sports have been an important part of the two nations' rekindled relationship. The two Koreas had minimal contact before South Korean President Moon Jae-in began pitching North Korea's involvement in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and Pyongyang's last-minute commitment to send a cheerleading team and women's hockey players came as a shock to many.
"The Pyeongchang Olympics were significant because Moon very deliberately used that to crack open the relationship and Kim Jong Un responded -- so it was happening at the highest level," Delury said. "Historians will ultimately have to weigh this: How much credit do you give to the Olympics? It was important -- you can't tell the story of 2018 without reference to the Games."
Ryan Walters, the Seoul-based editor in chief of sports publication K League United, said the extra hoops the Korean Football Association had to commit to, such as flying to China before reaching Pyongyang, show that the sports league might have other hopes on the horizon.
"The fact this match is even happening is a good sign for future relations," Walters told UPI. "Putting the [soccer] aside, I think the men facing off in North Korea for the first time in nearly 30 years, the women's teams playing there in 2017, and the joint hockey team in 2018 shows that relations are thawing and sport is indeed playing a big role in that thaw."
Walters predicted that the score would be an artful calculation between teams.
"Keeping the scoreline respectful is extremely important here," Walters said Monday, before Tuesday's game. "They have the political situation in the back of their minds and [would] take their foot off the gas a bit if they open up a big lead."
Regardless of the score, the game marks a small development in inter-Korean relations -- and one that required some compromise on U.N. sanctions. Yet some experts aren't convinced that a simple soccer match could be a game-changer.
"When Trump is so distracted, it doesn't bode well for the process," Delury said, as the American president faces an impeachment inquiry. "I'm seeing a lot of negative indicators diplomacy-wise."