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North Korea draws navigable group in round 3 of FIFA World Cup Asian qualifiers

The road to the 2026 FIFA World Cup for the North Korean team will go through three Middle Eastern countries and two former Soviet republics, the Asian Football Confederation decided in a  drawing for the third round of qualifiers in Kuala Lumpur Thursday.

North Korea was drawn into Group A along with  Iran, Qatar, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Kyrgyzstan. Though the team, known by supporters as the Chollima, have the lowest world ranking among the six teams, Group A offers a chance for qualification, with only Iran ranked among the world’s top 30 teams. 

In drawing Group A, North Korea avoids an inter-Korean showdown, with South Korea heavily favored to dominate Group B, full of Middle Eastern minnows Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Palestine and Kuwait. Group C, meanwhile, is the “Group of Death,” with powerhouses Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia drawn together, and Bahrain, China and Indonesia rounding out the group.

In the second round, North Korea finished second in its group behind Japan and ahead of Syria and Myanmar. They crushed Myanmar 6-1 in Yangon and 4-1 in a home match played in Vientiane, Laos. The campaign also featured a strong showing against 17th-ranked Japan in Tokyo, where they lost 1-0. But North Korea forfeited the home match because they refused to host.

North Korea fans in the stands before the match against Japan, March 21, 2024 in Tokyo. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

North Korea hasn’t hosted a home match since the last World Cup cycle, playing South Korea to a 0-0 draw in Pyongyang in 2019.

The third round will kick off on Sep. 5, with North Korea set to face Uzbekistan in Tashkent. Should the Chollima finish in second place or higher after playing each member of Group A home and away, the team would advance to the 2026 FIFA World Cup in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Finishing the group in third or fourth place would advance North Korea to a fourth round of qualifying, where six teams would vye for two more spots in 2026 or a berth in the inter-confederation playoffs.

Questions remain as to whether North Korea will host its own home matches or continue to coordinate them with third countries. Although the country has reopened its borders that had been shuttered since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020, it may not be ready to welcome teams from other countries and their fans.

The Chollima are very popular among fans in their home country, but the team also has fans from outside its borders.

Should the team advance to the finals and play on U.S. soil, Paul Han, a North Korean escapee who lives in Indianapolis, would cheer for the North Korean players, he told RFA Korean.

“I cheer for North Korea especially when they play against South Korea, the United States, or Japan,” he said. “It’s a matter of the fate of those players, because they can be sent to a place where the sun and moon cannot be seen (if they lose).”

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong.