By Tracey Holmes
A leading sports politics expert criticises the Australian Government’s refusal to grant visas to a team of teenage football players from North Korea saying it will have no impact on the regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Australia was due to host this month’s qualifying matches for the AFC’s under-19 championship in Victoria but it has been moved to Vietnam. (file photo) (Credit: Reuters)
A leading sports politics expert has criticised the Australian Government’s refusal to grant visas to a team of teenage football players from North Korea saying it will have no impact on the regime’s nuclear weapons program.
Speaking on The Ticket, Dr Udo Merkel from the UK’s University of Brighton, said to include sport in the latest United Nations sanctions against North Korea is neither “working” nor “convincing”.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she made the decision because, “hosting the team would be contrary to the Government’s strong opposition to North Korea’s illegal nuclear and missile development programs”.
“I think your Foreign Minister’s argument was very much that not issuing visas to the under-19 football team from North Korea would contribute to the economic and diplomatic pressures that everybody around the world would like to put on North Korea — in terms of making the regime understand their missile tests are unacceptable to the rest of the world,” Dr Merkel said.
Dr Merkell has been a close follower of the use of sport in foreign policy and has visited North Korea on numerous occasions. He said he had “a few problems” with the Australian Government’s reasoning.
“The first problem is that the latest UN resolution, which is all about additional sanctions and embargoes, and banning exports and imports into North Korea, does not mention sport specifically,” he said.
It could be argued that sport is a commercial enterprise and would therefore come under the UN sanctions but Dr Merkel said there was no professional sport inside North Korea and even if there was it is doubtful an under-age team would be included.
“These types of sanctions or embargoes or punishments — whatever you want to call these things — quite often do not work,” he said.
“We have had a trade embargo on Cuba since 1961 and it has not changed the political regime in Cuba at all.
“I’m not convinced any kind of sanctions affecting North Korea will cause any kind of change to the situation there, [or] will change Kim Jong-un and his desire to show the rest of the world that they’re ready to defend themselves in case somebody — very likely the United States — would actually invade them.”
Excluding North Korea could anger other AFC members
Australia was due to host this month’s qualifying matches for the Asian Football Confederation’s under-19 championship in Shepparton, Victoria. The games have now been moved to a “neutral venue” in Vietnam.
Some members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) are already opposed to Australian teams playing in the region. The decision to ban North Korea will only add to the tension.
Yet, conversely, the Australian Government is committed to developing relations in the region.
Dr Merkel argues sport is a vital political tool in international relations and should not be discounted.
“When we think about sport events primarily we think about athletes but they come with quite a big support team — not just the coaches, physiotherapists and other members of the support staff — they also come with representatives of the sport’s governing bodies, sometimes representatives of the government and that offers opportunities to actually engage with each other,” he said.
“These encounters have political significance.”
He pointed to the thawing of relations between India and Pakistan through cricket.
“Ten years ago the heads of both states actually met in the context of a cricket match and started talking about their relationship,” Dr Merkel said.
“They developed a few policy initiatives but the most important element was that the India team was able to tour Pakistan, and Pakistan sent a team to India.
“That confirmed to both populations that these were actually serious talks. So the whole field of sport as a diplomatic tool is quite multi-faceted.”
The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is another case in point. Dr Merkel said there was both a practical and political element in using sport for diplomacy ahead of the games.
The official bid document for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games cited the ability to use the showcase to further re-unification discussions between the North and South of the Korean peninsula.
“Pyeongchang would obviously offer an opportunity to demonstrate this but we also mustn’t forget that South Korea are obviously concerned that North Korea — we know this country is unpredictable — would somehow interfere with the Olympics in Pyeongchang,” he said.
“The more the South engages with the North the more unlikely it will be that they actually interfere.
“That is also the political rationale for [South Korea’s president] Moon Jae-in to suggest they might have some form of cooperation in the context of the Winter Olympics.”
The Young Socceroos face North Korea on Wednesday at Hanoi’s National Youth Football Training Centre.