TV union gives North Korea free World Cup footage

Jun 15, 2010 - 7:35 PM By EILEEN NG Associated Press Writer

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia(AP) -- Asia's broadcasting union said Tuesday it's providing North Korea with free live coverage of World Cup matches so that its citizens could enjoy the sport and get a feel for life outside their isolated communist nation.

John Barton, the sport director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, said he signed a contract with FIFA on Friday before the opening game to broadcast the matches live into North Korea.

He dismisses as "rubbish" reports accusing Pyongyang of broadcasting a pirated recording of the opening match between South Africa and Mexico."

South Korea's SBS television, which owns broadcast rights for the entire Korean peninsula, has questioned how North Korea secured the footage. Unlike in the past, SBS has not provided live coverage to Pyongyang due to current tensions between the two Koreas.

"They have got the live feeds with the blessing of FIFA. They are legitimate, they are not pirating, they are not doing anything wrong," Barton told The Associated Press. "This is sports, this is apolitical. They are receiving our signals free of charge so that the public of North Korea can watch them. We want them to see what life is on the other side of the curtain."

He added that the aim is to give the North Koreans "aspirations and hopes."

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that North Korea could have a normal, lawful relationship with its neighbors. But he says instead it chooses to "try to steal or pirate a World Cup signal" for the matches in South Africa.

Crowley said North Korea is trying "to steal itself forward rather than trying to do so through legal means."

While the ABU is providing North Koreans a live feed of the matches, Barton said it's up to them whether to relay the matches live. It appears the communist country's sole television station, the state-owned Korean Central Broadcasting, is showing the matches at least a day later.

The South Africa-Mexico match played on Friday was shown on Saturday, and the South Korea-Greece match, played on Saturday, was shown on Monday. The reason for the delayed telecast was not clear, but it was consistent with Pyongyang's proclivity for censorship.

Two North Korean commentators dryly narrated the South Korea-Greece game and offered mostly background information on the teams' rankings and general game rules. They expressed little excitement at a goal by South Korea's Park Ji-sung and calmly offered analysis into the technical skills leading to South Korea's 2-0 victory.

A newspaper in Japan reported that North Korean football fans in Pyongyang cheered for South Korea. It cited an unidentified Pyongyang citizen as saying North Koreans dislike South Korea's conservative government, but like its people.

"Citizens cheered the South Korean team with no exception," according to the Japan-based Choson Sinbo newspaper, considered a mouthpiece for North Korea's government.

World Cup fever is high on the divided Korean peninsula after both Korean teams qualified for the same tournament for the first time. The achievements by the two rivals come when tensions on the peninsula have risen following the March sinking of a South Korean warship that Seoul has blamed on Pyongyang.

Forty-six South Korean sailors died. The U.N. Security Council urged Seoul and Pyongyang to refrain from any provocative acts.

North Korea is competing at the World Cup for the first time in 44 years.

North Korea's only previous trip to soccer's premier event was in 1966 when its shocking 1-0 win over Italy sent the team into the quarterfinals. South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup with Japan and advanced to the semifinals, its best performance ever.