OSAKA – The North Korean women’s soccer team arrived in Japan on Thursday for Olympic qualifying matches in what Tokyo called “an exception” to its entry ban imposed over Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear weapons test and a rocket launch.
The team, wearing red coats and pink backpacks, arrived at Kansai International Airport in Osaka via Beijing, where a total of 30 athletes and staff picked up their visas at the Japanese Embassy on Wednesday.
At Kansai airport, an official of the pro-Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan (Chongryon), expressed hope that sports can help improve ties between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations.
“Relations between North Korea and Japan are bad now, but I hope sports will serve as a chance to improve the ties,” Kang Hyon, an official at Chongryon’s Osaka office, told reporters. He also said it would be nice to see both the North Korean and Japanese sides qualify for the Olympics.
The Asian qualifying tournament for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games will kick off in Osaka on Monday in a round-robin tournament, with Australia, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam competing for two places at the Games. Japan and North Korea are scheduled to meet on March 9.
Japan reimposed sanctions against North Korea earlier this month, including a ban on entry to the country by North Koreans and by all North Korean-registered ships.
But Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference Tuesday that the Japanese government would allow the team to enter Japan as an exception, saying there is “a widespread view in the international sports community” that athletes should not be discriminated against for their nationality.