IFBA has refused to sanction Pyongyang matches

Updated: June 27, 2005, 3:10 PM ET
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea -- A sports promoter has a different idea about how North Korea and South Korea should reconcile. He thinks they should use their fists.

Female boxers from the two countries will fight each other for the first time Tuesday in the North's capital of Pyongyang in bouts sponsored by Park Sang-kwon's newly created World Boxing Council Female.

"This is the power of sports bringing the North and South closer," Park told The Associated Press last week by fax from North Korea.

But Park's ambitions to use boxing to improve relations between the Koreas are causing a tussle of their own in the world of women's boxing.

The California-based International Female Boxers Association, one of the two main sanctioning bodies for women's boxing, said last week it would vacate the titles of two North Korean fighters set to box Tuesday: Kim Kwang Ok and Ryu Myung Ok. The IFBA has refused to sanction the Pyongyang matches.

"I think that [Park's] intentions there are honorable to try to have the sport promote the relationship between the two Koreas. But he went too far, he's created his own little business," said Rick Kulis, founder of the IFBA.

Kulis accused Park of a conflict of interest by heading the boxing association and also promoting the North Korean fighters, creating a potentially unfair situation for foreign fighters.

The verbal jabs by the rival groups have the fighters caught in the middle.

South Korea's Son Cho-long, 18, originally was to fight in Pyongyang. But her promotion company, fearing two of its clients who are IFBA champions might lose their titles, canceled her bout.

"I had finished preparing for the match and the match is gone," Son said. "I had looked forward to it, but the opportunity will come again as I keep boxing."

Son's promoter, Hwang Ki, expressed frustration at Park's interest in North Korean boxing, calling the bouts a sham aimed at awarding meaningless titles to North Koreans.

"He will give the three North Korean kids the belts ... and they will tout themselves for it," Hwang said.

Park responds by saying he's promoting the North Korean fighters simply because no one else would. He said he's visited the North 95 times -- where he also runs a car company -- and sees his work as fostering reunification of the Koreas.

"North Korea has over 2,000 male and female boxers. I want to rebuild the world's boxing based on North Korea's powerful boxers," Park stated.

Park also plans to appoint a North Korean vice president of the WBCF. The WBCF is the women's branch of the World Boxing Council. Muhammad Ali's daughter, Laila Ali, became the second WBCF champion earlier this month.

This week's bouts are just one area where the two Koreas are moving closer after more than a half-century of remaining technically at war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a cease-fire. More than 1 million South Korean tourists have visited the North's Diamond Mountain resort, and a joint economic zone just inside the North is ramping up production.

Tuesday's boxing match isn't the first attempt to bridge the gap through sports. The Koreas have played each other in soccer and basketball, and even competed on the same side in table tennis and soccer in 1991. In the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics, athletes from the two Koreas walked into the opening ceremony hand in hand carrying the blue-and-white flag of unified Korea, although they maintained separate teams for competition.

The boxing matches are drawing strong interest in Pyongyang, Park said. South Korean boxer Han Min-joo traveled Saturday to the North to fight in Son's place.

"I am so nervous to be standing on Pyongyang soil," Han Min-joo told South Korea's Yonhap news agency before her departure to fight Han Yon Soon of North Korea. "I think a good opportunity has been given to me, and I will try my best in the competition."

One of the bouts features Yvonne Caples, a 33-year-old English teacher who started boxing at the University of California and trains in Las Vegas. She will fight North Korean Choi Eun Soon for the WBCF flyweight title.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press