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Diplomacy in Play: The Role of Sport in Early Korea-Israel Relations

Guy Podoler (University of Haifa)

Abstract: Against the background of a sense of closeness between the two peoples, South Korea's current relations with Israel are warm. However, this has not always been the case. Israel officially recognized South Korea only in 1961, diplomatic relations between the two countries were established almost a year later, and South Korea did not open its embassy in Israel until 1993. Furthermore, despite cooperation in various areas during the 1960s and 1970s, at times, and especially in the 1970s, relations were more complicated and even rather cool in light of the Middle East conflict and South Korea's relations with the Arab world. However, this paper argues, at the eve of the establishment of formal relations, and during their early stages, sport functioned as a prominent cultural agent in bringing the two countries closer. Not only did the two national football teams play against each other in three Asian Cups in the 1950s and 1960s, and in the qualification rounds for two World Cups and one Olympic Games in the 1970s, but various friendly meetings were initiated as well. Through these encounters official ties were kept and strengthened, and a window opened to a distant foreign culture. By exploring the role of sport in early South Korea-Israel relations, this paper thus aims to shed fresh light on the history of the two countries' connections and to contribute a case study to the research on the place of sport in international affairs.