Japan women's soccer team clinches Olympic spot beating North Korea in rare visit to Tokyo

  • Football
  • Wednesday, 28 Feb 2024

Soccer Football - AFC Women's Olympic Qualifiers - Japan v North Korea - Japan National Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - February 28, 2024 North Korea players pose for a team group photo before the match REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

TOKYO (Reuters) - The Japanese women's soccer team won a spot at the Paris Olympics on Wednesday after beating their North Korean rivals in a match that also marked the first visit by one of its football teams to Japan in seven years.

The 2-1 victory, following a first leg draw in Saudi Arabia last week, was played at the stadium built for Tokyo Olympic Games. North Korea declined to join that sports gathering, which took place in 2021, citing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rekindling of sports ties comes as Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida mulls a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a renewed effort to uncover the fate of Japanese citizens abducted in the 1970s and 1980s by Pyongyang.

It would be the first such face-to-face leaders summit in two decades during which Pyongyang developed nuclear weapons and regularly test fired ballistic missiles into waters near Japan. In 2016, Tokyo banned North Koreans from visiting with exceptions including participating in sport events.

In display of the close but troubled relations between the two countries, the North Korean team was supported by hundreds of cheering fans at the Tokyo stadium, descendents of Koreans brought to Japan as workers, many during World War Two.

Hong Hyo Gi, 51, a third generation Korean living in Tokyo was one of them.

"I am excited about North Korean team being here after such a long time," he said outside the 68,000-seat stadium. "I think people from both countries want a relationship that each can accept," he added.

The possibility of a summit appeared to increase this month when Kim's sister Kim Yo Jong, through state news agency KCNA, said there was no impediment to closer ties should Japan decide to "open a new path."

United States President Joe Biden's administration, which has offered to talk with North Korea without precondition, has said it would support Tokyo engaging with the regime, although it wants Japan to ask South Korea first to avoid damaging growing security cooperation between the three countries.

Kanna Kondo, 42, who came to support Japan with her friends and children said she wanted to see a meeting that resolved the abduction issue. Japan has set that as a precondition for further talks with North Korea.

"I think an early resolution, if it happens this year, is something we are all hoping for," she said as she headed to the game watched by around 21,000 spectators.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly and Sakura Murakami; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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