North Korea is a terrible place for human rights, and there’s a macabre irony to their inclusion in the “Group of Death.” At the same time, however, they are the underdogs of the tournament: today they held steady against Brazil, the best soccer-playing country of all time, before falling 2-1. It’s really hard to root for a team representing a country that epitomizes much of what is wrong with the world, but it’s also hard not to root for a gritty team of soccer unknowns facing huge odds. What’s a political idealist/sports fan to do?
North Korea’s soccer team, like the country, is shrouded in secrecy. The team is ranked 105th in the world by FIFA, a mere ten spots higher in the rankings than Cape Verde, an archipelago country off the coast of Africa with 500,000 people and whose Wikipedia section on soccer lists all of the great players who did not play for the country and decided to play for European countries instead.
One of the reasons North Korea is ranked so low is that nobody knows anything about their team due to the complete isolation of the country. And despite the accomplishment of the team making it to the Cup for the first time since 1966, the people in North Korea will not see, hear, or know anything about what happens:
Unfortunately, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has banned coverage of the World Cup in North Korea unless their team wins the tournament, meaning that even if they perform well against Brazil, the citizens of North Korea will likely never hear of their side’s performance.
But what about those North Korean fans at the stadium dressed identically and cheering loudly for the team? Those, it turns out, are actors from China. North Korea gave them tickets to pretend to be fans of North Korea.
At the World Cup, the North Korean soccer team mostly reminds you of North Korea itself. They have essentially no contact with any other team. The team tried to add an extra striker by listing him as a goalkeeper; then, when FIFA pointed out the rule that players listed as goalkeepers can only play that position, the team claimed that the player wanted to play goalkeeper and the team was doing him a favor. And the coach’s answers to press conference questions included angrily rebuking a reporter who did not call the country “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” and answering a question about the team’s prospects against Brazil by saying:
This will bring a lot of joy to the Great Leader, it will show that North Koreans have great mental strength.
What’s more, six players play their club soccer for a team called FC April 25, the official team of the North Korean army and named after the day the North Koreans started a war against Japan.
The North Korean-ness of the North Korean team makes it fairly easy for me to root against the team. But despite all of these aspects of the team and the country, the players seem surprisingly non-North Korean and, dare I say it, likable.
The team includes three players who play outside of North Korea, including the captain (who plays in Russia) and star forward Jong Tae-se, who has never lived in North Korea and currently plays in Japan. On the one hand, Jong typifies the unthinking inflexibility of the North Korean situation: he is known for uncontrollably bawling during the North Korean national anthem. He is also, however, very culturally Japanese–he is a walking advertisement for the capitalism that North Korea despises:
He has appeared in television commercials. He drives a silver Hummer and likes to dress like hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. When he goes on the road, he travels with a laptop, iPod and sometimes a Nintendo DS and a Sony PlayStation Portable.
In the game today, the announcers mentioned how excited the North Korean team was when Jong showed them a cell phone, which the team had apparently never seen before. Jong even made clear how different he was from the rest of the North Korean team, noting, “It has taken a lot to accept their culture.” What’s more, the rest of the team clearly admires all that North Korea has worked to deny:
He has told other reporters since that his teammates can easily amuse themselves playing rock, paper, scissors – he said this with admiration, not disdain – and that they always flock to his hotel room to “play with his toys,” listen to his American music, and try on his flashy Nike sneakers.
For the outside observer like myself, it seems very difficult to reconcile the idea of a team trying to win a soccer game for a country that actively promotes injustice. On the other hand, they are just soccer players–they are not perpetrating the evils themselves, nor probably have any idea what’s going on. But everything North Korea does is inherently political because it is all about Kim Jong-il. They play for him, and he actively subjugates an entire country. I wish I could believe in the power of soccer to transcend political divides, but in the case of North Korea I’m unconvinced. I have nothing against their players, and I hope they do well: the better they play, the more likely they are to be recruited by a team outside of the country, and more exposure for any North Korean is the best way to counter the information vacuum that allows Kim Jong-il to create the adulating populace that keeps him in power. But I will not be rooting for North Korea to win any games this tournament, and I have no qualms about it.
And, of course, there’s another reason: if North Korea wins games, it will really hurt my bracket.