North Korea stages walkout over Olympics flag mix-up

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By a Newsnet reporter

Organisers of the 2012 London Olympics were left red-faced during the first day of sport action yesterday, when the North Korean women’s football team walked off the pitch at Hampden Park just before the start of their match against Colombia, in protest over the wrong flag being shown to represent their country. 

Organisers had mistakenly displayed the flag of South Korea during player introductions when each North Korean player was introduced along with a shot of the South Korean flag.

The North Koreans refused to return until an apology was made.  After 40 minutes of fraught negotiations between Olympic organisers and representatives of the North Korean Olympic Committee, the match finally began an hour later than its planned start time.  

London Olympic officials had maintained previously that there were multiple cross-checks in place to prevent embarrassing errors with flags or anthems.  However on the very first day of the games Games organisers managed to commit a faux pas at the expense of what has been called the most paranoid nation on Earth. 

North Korea is a hardline Stalinist totalitarian state where any dissent or non-conformity is harshly punished.  Questions will be raised about how Olympic officials could allow such a simple error to occur.  Fans watched in dismay as players and staff of the team walked off the pitch after the images were shown, some people complained that no explanation was transmitted to fans by the organisers.

Speaking to Reuters news agency, Hampden Park media manager Andy Mitchell said:  

“The South Korean flag was shown in the video package on the screen before the kickoff and the North Koreans were naturally very upset about that.

“We have made a full apology to the team and the North Korean NOC (National Olympic Committee).  A genuine mistake was made for which we apologise.  Steps will be taken to ensure it does not happen again.”

In a statement, London Olympics organisers LOCOG said:

“Today ahead of the women’s football match at Hampden Park, the Republic of Korea flag was shown on a big screen video package instead of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea flag.

“Clearly that is a mistake, we will apologise to the team and the National Olympic Committee and steps will be taken to ensure this does not happen again.”

In 2000, North and South Korean athletes marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics under the old flag of unified Korea, sparking a standing ovation.  But with relations deteriorating in the years since, each country insists on a separate flag.

North and South Korea remain technically at war.  The Korean War ended with a cease-fire in 1953, but no peace treaty has ever been signed.  The former front line between Northern and Southern forces is now the most heavily militarised frontier in the world, and tensions remain high. 

Fears that North and South might go to war again were raised in March 2010 after North Korea sank a South Korean naval patrol vessel sailing close to the maritime border.  Tensions rose again with the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in December 2011 and the succession of his son Kim Jong-un.

The flag incident added to the embarrassment of Olympic organisers as ticket sales for the Olympic football matches scheduled for Hampden have been poor.  Organisers were forced to revise their initial estimate of 40,000 ticket sales down to 20,000.  The first match appeared to attract around ten thousand fans, despite organisers distributing 35,000 free tickets on top of the seven thousand sold.  Hampden Park has a capacity of 52,000.

Eight Olympic football matches will be held in Glasgow.  Cardiff is hosting ten Olympic football matches.  In Cardiff, tickets were also given away free, but despite more apparent enthusiasm for the Games in Cardiff than in Glasgow, the 75,000 capacity Millenium Stadium was just one third full.   Neither the Glasgow nor Cardiff events beat the UK record of 29,000 for attendance at a women’s football match.