N Korea's odd game plan worries West

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The Independent Online
RICHARD LLOYD PARRY

Tokyo

Picture the scene. We are in Korea at the final of the 2002 football World Cup. As the striker for the united All-Korea side powers his third goal past the Japanese keeper, the crowd of weeping North and South Koreans embrace one another like brothers. At a ceremony in the demilitarised zone between the divided states, the Cup is jointly presented by the retired president of the South, Kim Young Sam, and Kim Jong Il, the North's "Dear Leader".

This bizarre scenario is conjured up by a remarkable communication, sent by the North Korean government to Fifa, football's world governing body. Since bids closed last year, the race for the 2002 World Cup has been a contest between South Korea and Japan. As in the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the idea of a united Korean bid was raised, but tensions on the peninsula last year rendered it impossible.

Then yesterday, the South Korean Football Association revealed the contents of a fax that was sent two weeks ago to Fifa's general secretary, Joseph Blatter. Signed by the chief of the North Korean FA, it sought "working advice on what points should be solved with regard to the plan of a North-South joint hosting of the 2002 World Cup".

On the South Korean World Cup committee, the fax caused great excitement. They believe a tournament to promote harmony in the world's last Cold War flashpoint would be almost irresistible to Fifa.

No one else gives the idea a chance. Apart from the lack of time (the host nation will be chosen in June), the obstacles look insuperable. What currency would be used, and who would select the squad? Above all, which of the rival Koreas, still technically at war, would host the final?

The affair illustrates the nervousness of the Pyongyang government, which is one day threatening war, the next suggesting joint sporting events.

Tomorrow senior officials from South Korea, the United States and Japan will gather in Hawaii to read the tea leaves at a puzzling time for the divided peninsula.

Food aid to Pyongyang will be at the top of the agenda. It has been a cause of deep concern since floods in the summer devastated the North's rice harvest. The International Red Cross this week echoed claims by the UN that 130,000 Northerners face starvation unless donor states top up relief supplies. Japan is sceptical and the US cautious. South Korea insists further shipments must be linked to improved relations between the two countries.

The mere presence of foreign charities is a turnaround for Pyongyang. For 40 years, it rejected almost all foreign contact. Optimists view the country's needy state as a chance to draw it into the international community.

But in other respects, it has been a tense winter. In October, a pair of spies were shot as they tried to penetrate the South, while the defection of North Korean military officers and diplomats has been denounced by Pyongyang. Last week a meeting between US and North Korea to discuss the return of American bodies from the Korean War ended in acrimony.

In December, Pyongyang's troop movements raised fears of an attack. The manoeuvres were halted in the New Year as the entire North Korean army was ordered to attend indoctrination lectures.

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