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North Koreans get warm reception in South, win match

North Korea's national soccer team players sing their national anthem before the Women's East Asian Cup soccer championship match against So
North Korea's national soccer team players sing their national anthem before the Women's East Asian Cup soccer championship match against So

By Ju-min Park and Narae Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - North and South Korea put aside bitter political divisions for 90 minutes on Sunday as their women's soccer teams clashed in a regional tournament in Seoul, with the visitors scoring a decisive win and getting a warm welcome from home-team fans.

Just months after the North's threats of nuclear war pushed the peninsula close to conflict, South Korean fans stood as the North's national anthem echoed around Seoul's World Cup stadium and even cheered when North Korea scored.

"This wouldn't happen if it was against any other country, but strangely I wanted to cheer North Korea," said Moon Sang-soon, a 49-year-old South Korean fan snacking on barbecued pork.

North Korea won the game 2-1.

The North Korean players have kept a low profile at the tournament compared with other teams, declining to use some of the stadium's facilities during training.

They were escorted by South Korean security officials and North Korean fans who traveled from Japan also shied away from the media.

Despite their reluctance to mix off the pitch, the North Korean players made a point of waving at the South Korean fans before the game.

The two Koreas remain technically at war under a truce that ended their 1950-53 conflict.

Months of bitter hostility that began early this year when North Korea conducted a third nuclear test marked some of the worst ever tension between them. It has since eased sharply.

The North Korean women arrived for their first trip to the South in eight years for the tournament on Thursday.

The four-nation Women's East Asian Cup also features China and Japan. A men's tournament is also being held but North Korea did not qualify for the finals.

While some see the visit as a sign of easing tension, not many people at the stadium appeared to put much faith in sports diplomacy. But some said the match was of symbolic importance.

"Sports are separate from politics," said Park Jeong-min, 28, wearing a South Korean national team uniform.

"I feel some kind of bond when watching North Korea. I hope there will be more and more of this kind of game."

Also watching was a former North Korean spy now living in South Korea after serving a jail term for refusing to disavow the North.

"I'm rooting for the young ladies from Pyongyang," said Kim Young-sik, 80. "I feel like we are being unified."

While the prospects for better political ties remain in question, the North's players were upbeat.

"Coming to the South side, hearing the cheers of compatriots gave us strength," Ho Un-byol, a North Korean defender who scored two goals, said after the match.

(Editing by Jack Kim and Robert Birsel)

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