Why South Korea’s proposal to host the 2030 World Cup with North Korea, China and Japan smacks of ideological desperation, selective ignorance and near-sighted daftness
Earlier this month, Korea’s new liberal President Moon Jaein met with FIFA’s reformist President Gianni Infantino. To the astonishment of many, Moon advocated for what KFA President Chung Monggyu had advocated for publicly earlier this year – a Pan-Korean or Pan-East-Asian bid for 2030’s spectacle of spectacles.
Moon’s decision was met with muted but existent backlash, with furious Korean netizens angry at the relative daftness of such a proposal. Though one could wonder if this is some sort of political goodwill gesture or bargaining chip from the Blue House’s war-room, no one can deny that the casual, careless naiveté of such a proposal will stir up old tensions, cause perpetual political scuffles and hinder – not ameliorate – Korea’s chances of hosting the World Cup once again.
There’s a nationalistic banner displayed at Korean football games against Japan, which doubles down as a slogan casually tossed around by Koreans in an overtly patriotic mood – “a nation that forgets its history has no future”. But when it comes to sharing the World Cup with geopolitical rivals, the mere notion that a 2030 World Cup could be held with North Korea, China and Japan demonstrates that Koreans too may have forgotten the messy, unpleasant arrangements of the 2002 World Cup.
Indeed, it was 21 years ago this month when the FIFA Executive Committee, fed up with geopolitical and ideological warfare between Korea and Japan, threw up their arms and announced that the two historical enemies would co-host the 2002 FIFA World Cup. It was a no-lose situation for football’s governing body, who, after months of receiving lush cash incentives and unashamed bribes, still could not resolve itself to back one of the two Asian bids.
That was, until, the South Korean bid inevitably brought the p-word in sport – politics – into the process. Recognizing that geopolitics were at the fore of every successful World Cup bid, the South Koreans quickly recruited the support of liberal President Kim Youngsam and used their power on the FIFA’s table of decisions to bend the ear of Executive Committee members. Kim played the role of peacemaker, promoting the event’s peaceful credentials, while Chung played attack-dog, going on record as saying that Japan’s colonial past made them “a nation unsuitable to host the World Cup”. This played, according an article in the American Journal of History, a key factor in FIFA’s resignation to allow both nations to “save face” and host the event together.
The co-hosting of the two countries was thus an accidental fate and both nations were expected to swallow their pride and work together to host the event. History tells us, however, that too much damage had been done, and FIFA was tasked to play mediator between warring clans – a consequence of their own decision.
The two organizing committees – yes, there were two, not one – squabbled over which country should host the opening game and which country should host the final. Though there were months of arguing, this issue was settled relatively amiably with Yokohoma hosting the final and Korea hosting both semi-finals and the opening game. The issue of ticket sales, however, was slightly more controversial, with the demand for tickets in Japan proving to be more popular than in Korea, leading to the Japanese camp furiously shaking their fist at FIFA and demanding an increase of their allocation (which was set at 50% for both nations). But the most public of debates was which country would appear first in the naming of the tournament – would it be the 2002 World Cup Korea/Japan, or the 2002 World Cup Japan/Korea? Though to some, it seemed like a simple detail, for the two nations involved, it was a matter of cheap pride and triumph.
Ultimately, FIFA were forced to make major concessions – give the host nations carte blanche on the profit from the tournament, instead of paying a fee to FIFA (and thus avoiding another “he said, she said” argument), and allow them to set their own ticket prices, suited to their national market (and thus avoiding the imposition of a unilateral approach on two markedly different economies) and allow each nation to establish their own domestic sponsors in their own countries, without the approval of FIFA (and thus avoiding having to negotiate Toshiba earning profit from Korea’s games, or Hyundai earning profit from Japan hosted matches). The cost of FIFA’s new soccer diplomacy was palpable, with one high-ranking official being quoted as saying “it is a disaster”.
But the hosting of the event only served to shine an international spotlight on the messy diplomatic situation on the peninsula. Indeed, issues surrounding comfort women and Japan’s nationalistic education curriculum came to the fore on multiple occasions, and threatened to stop the forced smile both nations had been putting on prior to the event. President Kim Daejung cancelled multiple international engagements in the years preceding 2002 because of comments by Japanese politicians promoting the “good things” of Japan’s occupation of Korea and their claims that a group of islands in the East Sea, known as Dokdo in Korea, were actually Japanese jurisdiction. Football diplomacy certainly did not conquer the Korea-Japan conflict.
Football diplomacy was supposed to cool the tensions between the two nations in the post-World Cup era, and though at times, relations between the two countries have improved, the last 15 years in cross East Sea relations have signaled that there is very little the World Cup did to bring both nations together. Korea’s perennial litany of complaints (though I consider them to be astutely valid) concerning comfort women, the Dokdo Islands, and Japanese politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (which honors Japanese war veterans, including some alleged war criminals) continue to go in one ear and out the other of Japanese politicians.
Park Jongwoo’s defiant post-game poster after beating Japan in the 2012 Rio Olympics (Dokdo is our land) pretty much sums it up – football diplomacy is a non-existent, virtual, fictitious concept – one devised by idealists with no basic grasp that its superficial consequences will never bring marked change to complex geopolitical conflict. 2002 failed. A simple perusal of the 2002 shambles makes the 2030 bid, centered around bringing peace to the region, far-fetched nonsense.
Have Chung Monggyu and Moon Jaein not learned the history of the 2002 bid? Have they not read about its acrimony, heard about its obvious failings, and noticed the fury of FIFA who swiftly vowed to never again permit co-hosting and allow itself to lose such time and money at resolving the petty wars of Korea-Japan conflict?
The latter point is perhaps the more important one. FIFA will not have forgotten the unattractiveness of the 2002 bid for its wallets. It, perhaps, will follow in the steps of the IOC and not fall for the noble, but usually fictitious concept that is sporting diplomacy.
PyeongChang’s organizing bid committees know all about how the themes of sporting diplomacy may prove to be more of a nuisance to a bid than an advantage. After all, in the bid books for the 2010 and 2014 games, themes of “peace” and “reunification”, though not central, were nonetheless present. Though it was not a full-fledged suggestion that the games, if shared with North Korea, could be a step towards reunification, the decision to drop those buzzwords altogether for 2018’s bid and focus solely on the bid’s credentials was, according to an unnamed IOC member (I can’t find the link, you’re going to have to trust me), among the reasons why PyeongChang 2018 was able to secure the majority it needed to host the Winter Olympics on the third time of asking.
That didn’t stop North Korea from trying to invite itself into the hosting of the games. For both the 2002 World Cup and the 2018 Olympics, the North Korean regime sent test balloons under the form of vague, general statements expressing warmth untowards the idea of hosting some events. Under both instances, the liberal South Korean regimes have replied with relative geniality, though it still remains unlikely that the Olympics will be co-hosted, despite recent government ministers from the south suggesting that this take place.
But the mere consideration of a 2030 World Cup shared with North Korea and China, two countries notorious for human rights abuses, especially at this politically tense time, seems quite daft. As demonstrated in the Korea/Japan example, sporting diplomacy is a something of a masquerade lined with incessant logistical chaos. But sharing the games with two such regimes in the hopes to improve relations seems to be on a completely different level of lunacy.
Consider for a minute the morality of the affair. North Korea, a country who regularly imprisons, enslaves and executes people who dare speak ill of the Kim regime. A nation whose sole raison-d’etre is not for some pursuit of greater good but rather to please the vileness of high-ranking officials and the North Korean politburo. A government who doesn’t govern, but dictates, infatuated with developing long-range missiles and ICBMs with the eventual goal of possessing nuclear might. A regime of vile, cold-hearted intentions, as we saw most recently in the case of Otto Warmbier.
Much like sending bags of rice to the North for humanitarian purposes and finding out that they only fed the stomachs of Pyongyang’s elite, President Moon and President Chung’s pan-Korean 2030 World Cup dream would only enrich North Korea’s government. It would not help the factory worker in Kaesong, or the starving family in Rajin-Sonbong. It will not turn on the lights in Anju or give the farmers respite in Kimchaek. Sure, it may inject sparks of “freedom” in Pyongyang, but any media center or training camp will be monitored and enclosed – they will be treated like the North Korean tourists who only see what the regime wishes for them to see. They will have no contact with the outside world.
What about North Korea and Japanese relations, which are arguably worse than South Korea-Japan relations? Can someone imagine Chinese and Japanese working together when the former still harbors hatred for the latter’s colonialism? And it’s certainly not like South Korea-China relations are very good either, with the Chinese taking offense to an anti-missile system deployed by the US in South Korea, and K-Dramas banned under Xi Jinping’s regime.
How can football possibly solve any of that, even just a little? How can anyone deny that FIFA will have to negotiate all that had to be negotiated in 2002, everything from revenue allocation to the selection of a representative mascot? Where is the guarantee that governments or population’s won’t use the newfound media spotlight to advance their political grudges among the four country bloc? A unity World Cup in all of this? Fat chance.
FIFA protocol even suggests that the head of state(s) of the organizing countries must attend together the opening game. Though leaders will change 13 years from now, “Moon Jaein, Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe and Kim Jongun walk into a football stadium” sounds like the start of a bad joke (such as this one) rather than reality.
Though it is indisputable that Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 are deeply flawed World Cups, a South Korea-North Korea-China-Japan World Cup in 2030 is just impossible. It’s dumb, near-sighted, naive and just not happening.
Though this article may sound somewhat like a political dissertation, I truly believe that even the mainstream Korean liberal who wears the Minju-dang’s blue sweatshirt everywhere they go or the grumpy pro-Park Geunhye ajusshi can find one argument that makes this pan-Korean, pan-East Asian 2030 World Cup undesirable. The obvious contradictions and unworkable differences between the four nations in the hosting of such an event makes its simple suggestion a pipe-dream.
It was 21 years ago this month when the FIFA Executive Committee, fed up with geopolitical and ideological warfare between Korea and Japan, threw up their arms and announced that the two historical enemies would co-host the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
They wanted tensions between the two nations to cease, and hoped that perhaps under the “power of football” and the “magic of sport” that such tensions would erode.
What is clear is that no entity, no government, not FIFA, no, not even football, will be able to close that stubborn Pandora’s Box that is East Asian geopolitics. And so this time around, in the interests of all of its citizens – for our sanity, our morality, and our dogged belief in doing right over wrong – the best thing that FIFA can do simply is tell us to shove it… and play the World Cup in a nation where its main purpose will be simply to allow us to enjoy the beautiful game.
The thought of North Korea hosting a World Cup is a joke. East Asia is complicated as it is and after reading this post Tim you make a lot of good points. It’s not going to really help the situation. I didn’t know the Korea/Japan World Cup was that bad. I’ve been familiar with the rivalry since I was young.
The rivalry and tension is still present so the 2002 World Cup wasn’t successful on that level like you pointed out Tim. Thanks FIFA (sarcasm)! Well at least Korea got to be the first Asian country along with Japan to host a World Cup. We have that mark in history.
This was a good post and good read. Tim you’ve been frequent with the posts. Thanks for that.
What’s your opinion on the 2026 USA. Mexico and Canada bid Tim? I feel like that could work better than the North/South Korea, Japan and China bid…
Granted, I’m sure a lot of good things came out of the Korea/Japan World Cup. I’m not blasting the tournament as a whole, and I think Korea is better off for it (mostly thanks to the 2002 team’s fabled run). I was specifically challenging the narrative that football can cure historic tensions and comparing that to 2030.
I’m happy to post a lot while I can. The other writers are busy these days (swamped with work or on vacation) so I’m just trying to do my part. I like the comments though, makes me feel like someone read them and made them a think a little, so thanks.
Though I hate how Mexico and Canada got short-changed with the number of games they were allotted (undoubtedly a condition that the USFF tied on to CONCACAF’s proposal) I think it’s generally a good thing. Financially, it’s a safe World Cup, and it won’t leave new cavernous stadiums unfilled. In terms of legacy, I think seeing the Canadian national team in a World Cup and welcoming the World’s best is good for Canada. It’s certainly motivated the CSA to start our own Premier League and pull away from MLS/NASL/USL, which is good. Politically, though there’s the orange elephant in the room that’s kind of getting in the way of things, there will be a new President by 2026 and the differences between the US and Mexico are considerably less marked than the differences between the governments in East Asia.
So I think it’s a solid bid. I’m tired of the US hogging all the tournaments (why do you guys have to ALWAYS host EVERY gold cup?) but I’m considerably more supportive of it than the 2030 mess.
Yeah i got you. I understood you weren’t blasting the tournament as a whole. Like you said good things have come out from 2002. I understood what you were trying to say.
In regards to the 2026 bid I think it’d be great for Canada to get into the world cup scene. Their women’s team is good and they also hosted the 2015 women’s world cup. I want to see the men being in the tournament frequently. I was pretty bummed out when Canada couldn’t qualify for 2018. I was hoping they would. I’m not Canadian myself (I’m Korean American) but I would love to see the men’s Canadian team be in more World Cups. I think Canada hosting a World Cup could bring a lot of potential for the men. We’ve seen the USA and Mexico get pretty good success (both teams made Round of 16 in 2014). Now it’s Canada’s turn.