A rare bright moment for North Koreans

June 14, 2010

SOCCER-WORLD/By Jon Herskovitz

Soccer is subversive in North Korea. The North Korean authorities, who try their best to keep the masses in the dark about what goes on in the rest of the world, cannot suppress news about soccer.

A few years ago, the government refused to publish the results of an embarrassing loss to long-time foe Japan in its official media, but according to diplomatic sources in Pyongyang and refugees who fled the state, most of the country knew the results within 24 hours of the match through a word of mouth network that state censors and security agents cannot suppress.

State TV, which is filled with propaganda extolling the virtues of its socialist system and leaders, allows a brief opening to the outside world by showing soccer from the likes of professional leagues in England, Italy, Spain and elsewhere in Europe, refugees have said. Streets empty when global soccer comes on but few North Korean stay at home to watch military orchestras perform revolutionary tunes including “Song of the Coastal Artillery Women”.

In my five years on the Korean peninsula covering the North, I came to learn that soccer is a rare bright spot for one of the world’s most suppressed people and that is why I want to see the North Korean team do well.

The North’s squad is led by the charismatic striker Jong Tae-se, who was born in Japan to ethnic Koreans. Jong prefers karaoke to ideology and is know to the outside world as Asia’s Wayne Rooney but sometimes called “acorn head” by his teammates.

North Korea begin their World Cup matches on Tuesday against global superpower Brazil. They will probably be thrashed by the Samba Kings but they will also likely put on a hard-charging display that is low on theatrics and high on heart – as is their style. 

Soccer is highly political for the North’s leaders, who saw FIFA move qualifying matches against the South off of North Korean soil because they refused to allow for the playing of South Korea’s national anthem or displays of the flag of its rival in the country’s main soccer stadium.

If North Korea do well in South Africa, its state media will lavish praise on Kim Jong-il, the North’s pudgy leader who propaganda extols as a full-time military genius and part-time sports patriarch.

But the average North Korean probably will not make the same connection. They will feel a sense of national pride that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with a struggling people feeling a rare moment of glory.

Jon Herskovitz served as the chief correspondent in South Korea for five years until May 2010 where he covered the North. He is now the senior correspondent for southern Africa based in Johannesburg.

PHOTO: North Korea’s Jong Tae-se controls a ball during a soccer training session at Makhulong stadium in Johannesburg June 10, 2010. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon


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