SEOUL (Reuters) - While Pyongyang’s planned rocket launch has put North Asia on edge and prompted the United States and Japan to deploy missile intercepting ships, the North Korean soccer team’s arrival in Seoul for a World Cup qualifier has barely registered on the radar.
Police commandos and intelligence officers provided blanket security for the North Koreans on Sunday.
Their arrival created barely a ripple, with media far outnumbering onlookers at the airport, and little has been seen of the players since.
Wednesday’s match will have a major impact on which teams qualify for the 2010 finals in South Africa but the growing tension on the peninsula over North Korea’s planned rocket launch has overshadowed the clash.
The North says it will launch a satellite from April 4-8 as part of a peaceful space program but South Korea, and allies the United States and Japan, have said the launch is a disguised test of the North’s long-range Taepodong-2 missile.
Any test would violate U.N. resolutions put in place after North Korea last fired the missile in July 2006 and conducted its first and only nuclear test a few months later.
Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, North Korean coach Kim Jong-hun refused to answer questions on whether the match would improve the icy relationship between the Koreas.
However, he insisted his team were the equal of any in the qualifying group and said they would go all-out to defeat their South Korean rivals.
“Our fighting spirit is high,” Kim said. “The players have the confidence they can take on any team in the group.”
The North scored a 2-0 win over the United Arab Emirates at the weekend to go top of Group 2, but South Korea could leapfrog them with a win in Seoul.
“The players and I are fully aware how important the three points are to get through the qualifying round,” Kim said. “All the players are ready to play with all they have to win those three points.”
The top two teams qualify automatically for South Africa and the North Koreans are being tipped to reach their first finals since 1966, when they reached the quarter-finals.
The two Koreas have never appeared at the same World Cup finals.
“It will be a good thing, for us, of the same Korean nation, to go onto the World Cup finals together,” South Korean coach Huh Jung-moo said. “It will be a great honor and a source of pride.”
Games between the two have typically been low-scoring, dour affairs.
North Korea also crossed the line between sport and diplomacy early last year when it refused to play the South’s anthem or raise its flag in an earlier round of qualifying in Pyongyang.
That decision forced world soccer’s governing body FIFA to change the venue to Shanghai, where the two teams played out a drab draw.
Editing by Peter Rutherford