Few Expect Improved Ties From North Korean Football Visit

SEOUL - The North Korean women's football team arrives in Seoul for a regional tournament on Thursday just months after missile tests and threats of nuclear war pushed the peninsula close to conflict, and while some see the visit as a sign of easing tensions few are putting any faith in sports diplomacy.

The four-nation Women's East Asian Cup, which also features China and Japan, sees South Korea face their bitter rivals from the North at Seoul's World Cup stadium on Sunday.

The tournament takes place with the two Koreas engaged in rare talks aimed at restarting a jointly run industrial project in Kaesong, which closed in April as relations between Seoul and Pyongyang plummeted.

The closure of the park, a money-spinner for the impoverished North, came after North Korea threatened strikes with nuclear and other missiles against the South and the United States after the United Nations imposed toughened sanctions on the North for its third nuclear test in February.

While most other aspects of cross-border cooperation have been frozen, sport seems to be one area in which the North has found some common ground with its neighbour.

Jeon Young-sun, professor at the Institute of the Humanities for Unification from Konkuk University, said some significance could be attached to the visit of the women's team but the relationship had to improve before progress could be made.

"It (the visit) can be considered meaningful but in the middle of a lull in South-North Korea relations, politics are likely to impact sports, not the other way," Jeon told Reuters.

Sporting relations between the two Koreas have veered from cosy to ice cool in recent years, the high point being their joint march under a 'unification flag' at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

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