Around the World in Women's Soccer: The Korean WK League
Around the World in Women's Soccer is a series that explores women's soccer in other countries. Each country will get two stories: The first will explore the country's national team, while the second will explore the country's domestic league.
In a few weeks, South Korea will face off against China in back-to-back playoff games. Their prize: the final spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which will be held this summer. This would be the first-ever Olympic appearance for the Taegeuk Ladies and a monumental moment for women's soccer in South Korea.
Like many places around the world, the domestic game still struggles in South Korea. The WK League, which was established in 2009, is a semi-pro league and the only women's soccer league in the country. It features eight clubs who compete across a 21-game summer season. But like many small leagues, one team has dominated since their inception: the Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels.
Since the league was established in 2009, Incheon has played in every single championship match. They didn't win their first title until 2013, but since then, they haven't lost. Many of South Korea's best players -- including Cho So-hyun, Kim Jung-mi, and Kim Hye-ri -- all played for Incheon at some point in their careers. The top goal-scorer in the 2020 season -- midfielder Choi Yoo-jung -- plays for Incheon. Lee So-dam, who signed with Sky Blue FC this offseason, is joining the team after departing Incheon.
While almost all of the South Korean national team players play in their home country, the WK league doesn't attract a ton of international talent. In fact, each club is only allowed to sign three foreign players, with one slot dedicated for players from the Asian Football Confederation. In 2020, only two teams -- Gyeongju KHNP and Hwacheon KSPO -- filled all three slots. Of the ten international players that year, five were from Japan, two were from Ireland, two were from Brazil, and one player was from Spain. Boeun Sangmu, a club that is operated by the military, is not allowed to sign any foreign players.
Alongside baseball, soccer is the most popular sport in South Korea. And yet, the women's national team and the women's domestic league both struggle for consistent support. It seems like there is a lot of untapped potential in the South Korean women's soccer market, but there is reason for hope. In January 2021, the Korea Football Association named Eunah Hong as the federation's first female vice president. She will be in charge of women's soccer and female referees moving forward. Hong worked as an international referee herself before becoming a university professor. You can read her 2012 article comparing the success of women's soccer in North and South Korea here.
With new officials in charge and the chance at an Olympic roster looming, maybe women's soccer will finally get the consistency and support that it deserves in South Korea. This could be a new age for the Taegeuk Ladies, the WK league, and all young girls in South Korea who dream of playing soccer. We will know soon enough.
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