Former Man Utd star is a Winter Olympics ambassador
South Korean says Games could promote peace
Calls for joint FIFA World Cup Finals bid with North Korea
Given the way tensions are rising out of North Korea, sports may provide its clearest path back into the international community.
That, at least, is the sentiment of South Korea’s greatest footballer Park Ji-sung.
The former Manchester United midfielder – who will be an Olympic torchbearer in the countdown to his country hosting the 2018 Winter Games – believes that North Korea’s participation in the tournament sends a positive message.
2018 Winter Olympics
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“When we had a good relationship between North Korea and South Korea, we always connected with sports,” Park tells CNN Sport. “We have a tricky relationship between both countries, so if they participate that means a lot to our country as well.”
Last month figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-sik became the first North Korean athletes to qualify for PyeongChang 2018 and the pair will have the full support of South Koreans, according to Park.
“We can cheer for them and support them,” he said of the North Korean Olympic team.
According to Reuters, North Korean athletes still have a chance of qualifying for speed skating and Nordic skiing.
Nevertheless, North Korea’s Olympic committee has yet to announce whether it will allow its athletes to participate in the Winter Games. It boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul.
“They are always open to come to South Korea and play, because we never reject North Korean athletes,” added Park, an honorary ambassador of the 2018 Winter Games.
“We (can) really help them to set up during the Olympics, which can maybe (build) a good relationship between North Korea and South Korea.”
Widely regarded as Asia’s most accomplished footballer, Park played 100 times for South Korea and scored in three World Cups.
The former midfielder, famed for his boundless energy, won four league titles at United and was the first Asian player to captain the club. He was also the first Asian player to play in, and win, a Champions League final after United beat Chelsea in 2008.
Park even suggests that the two countries – whose relationship has endured varying stages of tension since Korea’s division after World War II – could co-host a future FIFA World Cup, akin to the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “It would be great idea to have the World Cup together. It shows how our relationship is good … so actually, I hope it happens.”
In June, South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in proposed that the two neighbors join a regional coalition to bid for the 2030 World Cup, saying it would “help to create peace” between them.
More recently, however, Moon called North Korea’s actions “extremely deplorable” at the United Nations, following weeks of tension that prompted strong language from US president Donald Trump.
‘We are the same country’
Park remains convinced that sports can cut through politics, reflecting positively on his experiences playing against North Korea during qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup.
“It’s quite a great experience for me to play against North Korea,” Park said. “We (share) the same language, we look the same, and actually we are the same country.
“Generally, when I speak to them they are normal people. So there is nothing really different.”
The rivals met four times in the 2008 World Cup qualifiers, drawing the first three matches before South Korea finally won 1-0 in Seoul.
North Korea’s home matches were played in Shanghai because of its refusal to allow the South Korean flag and national anthem to be represented, according to The Daily Telegraph.
‘For South Koreans, this is normal’
One thing not lost on Park is the heightened security that will surround the Winter Games.
France has said it will pull out of the competition if North Korea’s atomic weapons testing escalates. The Winter Olympics will start on February 9 in the mountainous resort area PyeongChang, which sits just 50 miles from the North Korean border.
Though its proximity is an obvious concern to visitors, living with North Korea’s sabre-rattling is a way of life for South Koreans, according to Park: “It’s not a big thing. It’s kind of something that is there, but not happening.”
“If they don’t know the relationship between South Korea and North Korea, they are probably worried about the situation, but (for) the South Korean people this is normal,” he said, adding that he “totally understands” the predicament of tourists and athletes who may think twice about attending the games,
“These days any country has to have security issues because of terror,” he added. “This Olympics is as normal as the other Olympics security-wise.”
What is undeniable, however, is that showcasing the world’s premier winter sporting event adds another level of prestige to South Korea’s image, following the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 2002 World Cup.
So does rolling out a recently retired Premier League star.
Although Park hung up his cleats just three years ago, he appears somewhat nervous about being the first person to carry the Olympic torch for PyeongChang 2018 – a prospect the 36-year-old calls “awesome.”
“Actually, I have to run around 300 meters; that’s not too long so I’m happy with that distance,” he said, laughing.
“I don’t know which hand I need to hold the torch. And how I should smile, which way I should look for the (camera) … I have no idea,” he said. “It will be exciting and it will be a great experience.”
If things go according to plan, at least two North Korean athletes will be sharing that sentiment come February.