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Unions to play soccer with North

Civil-level exchanges across border increase, raising hopes for further thaw in relations

GIMPO -- South Korea’s labor unions left for North Korea on Wednesday to participate in an inter-Korean friendly soccer match in Pyongyang, resuming after an eight-year hiatus to give a boost to cross-border exchanges in the private sector. 

A total of 162 workers from the nation’s biggest trade union umbrella groups – the Federation of Korean Trade Unions and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions -- flew to the communist country for the four-day event that will run through Saturday.

This is the largest delegation Seoul has ever sent to the event, organizers said. The match was previously held in 1999 and 2007, but has been suspended since, as inter-Korean relations soured upon the deadly sinking of the South’s warship Cheonan in 2010.

South Korea`s labor union members wait in line at an airport to attend a freindly soccer match in Pyongyang. Yonhap
South Korea`s labor union members wait in line at an airport to attend a freindly soccer match in Pyongyang. Yonhap

At the press briefing held at Gimpo International Airport in the morning shortly before the workers boarded the privately hired Eastar Jet budget carrier, union leaders expressed their determination to make the event a chance to foster reunification.

“We will come back after making the event a stepping stone for inter-Korean exchanges and reunification,” Kim Dong-man, head of the FKTU, told the reporters. 

Pointing out the friendly soccer competition carries a greater meaning than ever, Choi Jong-jin, chief vice chairman of the KCTU, also vowed to bring forward reunification through the event.

The South Korean delegation was welcomed by the North’s counterpart Joseon Professionals Alliance at the reception dinner in the evening. The North’s labor union has some 1.6 million members aged 30 or older. Unlike its capitalist neighbor’s union, the JPA reportedly exists to solidify the communist regime under the control of its Workers’ Party.

The soccer match among the three union groups is scheduled for Thursday and Friday at the Rungrado May 1st Stadium in Pyongyang. The South’s delegation will also tour the North’s capital, factories and historical sites before returning to Seoul on Saturday evening.

The union officials hinted at the possibility representatives from the two Koreas would adopt a declaration aimed at enhancing labor movement for reunification.

The match comes after the Unification Ministry approved the labor unions’ visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday, viewing it as a “purely sports exchange” between the trade unions.

The South’s union groups originally sought to hold the soccer game in May, but the government rejected their application, citing what it called the political nature of the event.

The easing of inter-Korean tensions following the Aug. 25 agreement also helped the unions hold the event on North Korean soil as civic exchanges between the two Koreas have seen an increase in volume in recent months.

On top of the rare family reunions that ended Monday, South Korean civilian group Ace Gyeongnam crossed the border to provide fertilizer and other materials needed to run a greenhouse in North Korea the same day. Separately, Green Asia Organization, led by former South Korean prime minister Goh Kun, is set to offer some 23,000 saplings and 4 tons of seeds to the North.

The nongovernmental exchanges between the Koreas will likely expand in line with President Park Geun-hye’s emphasis on civic exchanges and cooperation in inter-Korean relations.

In Tuesday’s address to the National Assembly, Park pledged to be more “active” in cultural and sporting exchanges and to expand partnership with the reclusive state to restore the Korean people’s “homogeneity.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (