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All Headlines 10:31 June 25, 2009

*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

N. Korea Gains First Berth in 44 Years for 2010 World Cup Finals

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- For the first time in 44 years, North Korea qualified last week for the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals to be held in South Africa. The North gained the much-coveted berth by finishing second in its regional group in the final qualifier on June 18.

North and South Korea will both compete in the 2010 South Africa World Cup, the first time the two sides will appear in the same tournament after North Korea's 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on June 18. North Korea became the fourth automatic qualifier in Asia following Australia, Japan and South Korea.

North Korean coach Kim Jong-hun praised his players for their "great performance," according to wire reports. "We focused on defending, as we had come under a lot of pressure from the Saudis, and I think our preparation for the game was one factor that earned the victory tonight," Kim was quoted as saying.

South Korea tied 1-1 with Iran on June 17, topping the group. It will be the first time for the Koreas, which have remained technically at war since their 1950-53 conflict, to participate together in the same World Cup tournament.

South Korea first competed in the 1954 Switzerland World Cup and in six straight tournaments from the 1986 Mexico World Cup to the 2006 event in Germany, while North Korea participated in only the 1966 England World Cup, where they finished in the quarterfinals.

The two Korean rivals clashed four times during the qualifying round for next year's finals, tying three games and with the South winning 1-0 in their last meeting on April 1.

With the scoreless draw, the North Korean team wrapped up the World Cup Asian qualifying round with 12 points -- three wins, two losses and three draws -- edging its Middle East rival Saudi Arabia on goal difference.

Its unbeaten South Korean neighbor topped the group with 16 points, grabbing a seventh consecutive ticket to the global showcase event.

During the match against the Middle East powerhouse, North Korea concentrated on defense to ensure a stalemate. Aided by goalkeeper Ri Myong-guk's fine saves, the team needed at least a draw with Saudi Arabia in the final match of the qualifying round in Riyadh to secure the runner-up position.

Iran was eliminated from competition after its draw with South Korea on June 17, finishing fourth. Iranian striker Masoud Shojaei's goal gave his team the lead after a scoreless 51 minutes, boosting hopes of a berth in the World Cup finals until the 81st minute when South Korea's Park Ji-sung equalized.

Park's late goal ensured an undefeated record for the South Korean team in eight qualifying matches for the World Cup, the first time since 1990 when it went unbeaten to qualify for the global event.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, third-place finishers in their respective groups, will meet in playoffs in September. The winner will then take on Oceania champion New Zealand for a berth to South Africa.

North Korea's football team received a heroes' welcome after securing a spot in the World Cup finals, state media said June 21.

The North Korean football squad returned home over the weekend after qualifying for the 2010 tournament with a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of people, including Yang Hyong-sop, Vice President of the Supreme People's Assembly Presidium, Workers' Party Secretary Kim Jung-rin, as well as students and children greeted the football team at Pyongyang's airport June 20, after which a special banquet was held in Pyongyang to congratulate the players, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

"Sportspersons congratulated players and coaches on their success, putting garlands around their necks and presenting them with bouquets. Pyongyangites turned out to the streets and enthusiastically welcomed the proud sons of the nation," the KCNA said.

North Korea's qualification for the World Cup finals comes as the socialist state faces increasing condemnation by the international community following its May 25 nuclear test and test-firing of rockets.

The United Nations Security Council recently agreed on financial and diplomatic sanctions against Pyongyang for defying a U.N. resolution by detonating its second nuclear device.

The North Korean football team was banned from traveling overseas after it lost to archrivals Japan and South Korea in qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup. It also did not compete for the 1998 or 2002 World Cup.

FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter welcomed North Korea's qualification for the 2010 World Cup finals, according to wire reports on June 22. "I think to have the Democratic Republic of Korea at the World Cup is a confirmation that the development of football will not stop, and North Korea has always had good footballers," Blatter said to members of media in South Africa. Blatter also praised North Korea's women's football, saying they have appeared constantly in FIFA's competitions, and they have had great players.

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