Who’s cheering for North Korea at the World Cup opener against Brazil?

interns Contributor
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JOHANNESBURG — The flight alone would cost at least 100 times the average North Korean worker’s yearly salary, and nearly as hard to come by is the permission to leave one of the most strictly controlled communist states.

So who’s going to cheer for the North Korean team as it makes its jubilant return to the World Cup finals Tuesday after a 44-year absence?

There’s no sign Pyongyang has dispatched its famous “army of beauties,” who drew more attention than the athletes they were cheering when they were sent to South Korea for sporting events in 2002 and 2003.

South Korea’s boisterous “Red Devils” say they would love to root for the North Koreans, but ruled it out amid tensions over the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on North Korea. Ethnic Koreans living in South Africa offered to cheer for the North, but say they got the cold shoulder from the North Korean embassy.

Japan’s Korean community tried to rouse support from fans eager to see their two homegrown stars play for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. However, all but a few dozen balked at the $6,500 price tag for the three-day trip to far-off South Africa.

The largest contingent of North Korea fans may end up being Chinese.

North Korea, allocated a block of seats for each World Cup match, has offered its tickets to sporting officials and tour agencies in neighboring China, which does not have a team at soccer’s biggest event.

About 1,000 Chinese dancers and musicians are among fans recruited to cheer for North Korea, according to China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Tourists can also join the “Chinese Volunteer Army” to cheer for North Korea, according to China Sports Star, a state-owned promotion agency. The nearly $5,000, eight-day tour includes a safari and casino visit, and either the North Korea game against Brazil in Johannesburg on Tuesday or the match against Portugal in Cape Town on June 21.

Hundreds of people have signed up, said Li Hailong, a manager with China Sports Star, a state-owned promotion agency in Beijing.

Still, even after North Korean officials and Chinese fans take their seats, there may well be thousands of empty rows at Tuesday’s match between North Korea and Brazil as the Asian nation makes its World Cup homecoming for the first time since its historic run to the quarterfinals in 1966.

It’s not quite the reception either Korea had hoped for, especially since it’s the first time both Korean teams have qualified for the World Cup.

The two Koreas may remain stuck in a state of war because the Korean conflict of the 1950s ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty, but they’ve managed in past years to put aside politics when it comes to sports.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the two Korean teams walked into the opening ceremony together — beneath a “unified Korea” flag — to a standing ovation. For Beijing in 2008, there was talk of sending a unified cheering squad, and even reactivating the train line between Seoul and the North Korean town of Sinuiju so they could travel to Beijing together, but the discussions went nowhere.

After both Koreas qualified, South Korean lawmakers discussed helping North Korea send cheerleaders to South Africa to join a unified World Cup cheering squad. In previous years, South Korea helped pay to bring North Korean cheerleaders — dubbed the “army of beauties” by the captivated local press — to the Asian Games in Busan in 2002 and the University Games in Daegu in 2003.

The cheerleaders were a sensation, alternating between “cheers” — Skill! Technique! Focus! — and singing pro-reconciliation tunes such as: “We are One,” “See You Again” and “Our Nation’s Path is Reunification.”

However, the deadly March sinking of a South Korean warship blamed on the North silenced any talk of sending a joint cheering squad to South Africa. A multinational team of investigators concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. Forty-six sailors were killed — the worst military attack on the South since the Korean War.

Still, Kevin Sun, who visited North Korea in 2008, said he would be flying out from Australia to root for the North Koreans.

“I might be the only person waving a North Korea flag at the whole stadium apart from the organizers — just so to give support to a team no one ever looked upon and no one ‘likes,'” he said. “Someone needs to support a non-liked team.”

Associated Press writers Sangwon Yoon in Seoul and Jim Armstrong in Tokyo, and researcher Xi Yue in Beijing, contributed to this report.