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Solidarity wins out for South Koreans cheering for North Add to ...

If you read the newspaper headlines, the 11 men in red playing soccer on the big-screen television were the enemy, representatives of the country that had recently threatened to turn this city of 10.5 million people into a "sea of flame."

But there was little animosity among the hundreds of South Koreans who stayed up into the wee hours of Wednesday morning to watch their northern neighbour battle Brazil in World Cup soccer. In trendy university cafés and raucous soju bars alike, many South Koreans watched the men in red battle the powerhouse Brazilians with sympathy, even solidarity, in their hearts.

"I don't want my restaurant to be turned into a sea of fire, but nothing is going to change the fact that we're the same people," said Hur Sung-hun, a 39-year-old restaurateur, grimacing as Brazil finally scored midway through the second half to go ahead 1-0. "It's just a different ideology and an accident of birth. I could just as easily have been born North Korean."

It was a common, if quietly expressed sentiment among the small groups of South Koreans who gathered to watch their northern brethren battle Brazil to a draw for the first half before finally falling behind in the last 45 minutes. In the charged atmosphere following the April sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, many say they felt they had to hide their sympathies while cheering for the North, but nonetheless couldn't help themselves.

Despite 60 years of divisions, worsened in recent years by two North Korean nuclear tests and the sinking of the Cheonan, there are still thick ties of ethnicity and family that bind Koreans on both sides of the world's most heavily armed border. By qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1966, North Korea's soccer squad has given some South Koreans a rare chance to applaud their neighbours.

When Ji Yun-Nam scored an improbable goal to bring the North Koreans back to within 2-1 with just over a minute remaining in the game - at just after 5 a.m. Seoul time - a lusty cheer rang through the streets of Seoul's Itaewon bar district.

"Right now, the security situation is very, very complex. Especially since the Cheonan incident, we don't know what the North will do," said Ha Gil-chung, a 49-year-old taxi driver. "But as far as sport is concerned, of course we want our own people to win, as opposed to some people far away in South America."

The warm feelings over the World Cup belie the growing tension in recent weeks as North and South Korea jousted verbally over the Cheonan attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors. Seoul has this week sought to ratchet up the pressure on Pyongyang via the United Nations Security Council, presenting the findings of a multinational investigation which concluded that the corvette was sunk by a North Korean torpedo.

"Inter-Korean relations have soured to their worst in a decade," the JoongAng Daily, a South Korean newspaper, wrote in an editorial published Tuesday.

But ordinary South Koreans - inured to the constant state of crisis that comes with living next to Kim Jong-il's unpredictable regime - seem oddly blasé about the crisis over the Cheonan. According to Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, a significant minority believe that the South Korean government and its American allies had staged the sinking in order to frame the North.

Even among those South Koreans who do believe Pyongyang was responsible for the sinking of the ship and the deaths of the sailors, there's surprisingly little anger or surprise over the incident. "What was the South Korean reaction to the [Cheonan]affair? Almost none. If it was an American tank that had killed a couple of pedestrians, there would be half a million demonstrators in the streets," Prof. Lankov said.

Ironically, most North Koreans haven't yet seen the goal that had their southern neighbours applauding. Following the Cheonan sinking, South Korea's SBS television network, which owns the transmission rights to the World Cup for all Korea, declared it would not broadcast games for free into the North, as it had done during the 2006 World Cup, which was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan.

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