HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP)—Zimbabwe’s tourism minister said on Wednesday North Korea’s World Cup squad has changed its training venue for its upcoming visit but denied the move was politically motivated.
Walter Mzembi told The Associated Press the North Koreans would now be based in the capital Harare and not the southern city of Bulawayo, but added the change was “purely a sporting issue” and had no link to political killings in Bulawayo’s Matabeleland province in the early 1980’s.
Mzembi said North Korea had switched to Harare’s Rufaro Stadium because artificial training surfaces there were similar to that of the training pitch which he said the North Koreans will use at their World Cup base in South Africa.
“This has nothing to with politics,” Mzembi told The AP, “but is purely a sporting issue, for the North Korean team to have the adequate preparation for the tournament.”
North Korea’s visit has caused opposition in Matabeleland after it revived memories of the massacre of up to 40,000 civilians by an army brigade trained by North Korean instructors.
Mzembi said there was no connection to the killings more than 20 years ago, which some human rights activists liken to genocide.
“They (the North Korean team) have learnt that in Bulawayo there is no stadium with rubber turf, which is similar to the one being constructed for them in South Africa for the World Cup soccer tournament,” Mzembi said.
“They (the rubber pitches) can only be found in Harare at Rufaro stadium which was under renovation last year and so they (North Korea) have provisionally set to switch camp to Harare,” he said.
North Korea, which has qualified for its first World Cup since 1966, is due to stop over in the troubled southern African country on its way to neighboring South Africa.
Mzembi said the provisional dates for the visit were May 23-31, but Zimbabwe would be given confirmation of the exact schedule by May 18.