Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Ask a Korean! News: North Korean Soccer (Part I)

First of all, congratulations to the Taeguk Warriors for making the knockout round for the first time outside of Korea.

While this World Cup has produced plenty of compelling moments -- like Landon Donovan's beautiful 91st minute goal against Algeria (USA! USA!) -- the leading Korean Peninsula-related story of the World Cup is the Chollima (the "Thousand-Mile Horses") of North Korea, who fought well against the 2-1 defeat against Brazil in the course of being eliminated.

Personally, the Korean thinks that North Korea should never have been allowed to play in the 2010 World Cup. Eve Fairbanks of Newsweek described the Korean's sentiment well:
But I have to admit that the more goals the Portuguese scored, the worse I felt. I didn't dare to wear my fiery colors of labor too obviously inside the Troyeville, but I was rooting for North Korea. Partly because of the amusement factor—rock-paper-scissors!—but mainly because, when I looked at those hapless North Korean players giving up goal after goal, I wondered how safe their friends and families would be.
FIFA—and South Africa—missed an opportunity by failing to ban the North Koreans. Enlightened people love to pooh-pooh cultural boycotts, but a ban would have reflected this part of the continent’s unique ethos and history. South Africa is the single country where a sports boycott did the most to heighten outside awareness of the evils of a regime—and to foment internal restlessness for change.
Bring Back the Sports Boycott [Newsweek]

The Korean cannot help Ms. Fairbanks get the boycott she (and he) wanted. But he can help taking a guess at what North Korean soccer players might go through, thanks to Mr. Joo Seong-Ha of Nambuk Story. Below is a series by Mr. Joo providing analysis on North Korean soccer's history and the current state. Because the series is in three parts, the Korean will also give the translation in three parts.

North Korean Soccer Analysis: Part I - Defeat Makes a Sea of Tears

June 18, 2008, King Fahd Stadium, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

As soon as the game against Saudi Arabia ended -- the last game in the Asia preliminaries for 2010 World Cup -- the North Korean players shed tears of joy as they embraced one another. They had just advanced to the World Cup Finals for the first time in 44 years. This was also the first time in history when South and North Korea advanced together.

 North Koreans players cheer at King Fahd Stadium after qualifying for the World Cup.

The players received a massive welcome parade in Pyongyang. The regime also rewarded them with awards at the highest level. Sixteen received the name of "People's Athlete," and three received the name "Contributing Athlete." People's Athlete is the highest honor for an athlete in North Korea. North Korea usually reserves the People's Athlete honors for athletes who won in the Olympics or a world championship, and the Contributing Athlete honors for those who won an Asia-wide competition. The unprecedented number of those who received the People's Athlete honors at the same time reflects how much North Korea values advancing into the World Cup.

The families of the People's Athlete apparently moved to the best Athlete's Apartments in Pyongyang. In particular, the families who used to live in rural areas won a Pyongyang citizenship, which is extremely difficult to obtain, thanks to their sons. This also shows the soccer's popularity in North Korea, and the emphasis that the regime puts on the sport.

Then why did North Korea fail to distinguish itself in the international stage for over 40 years? To understand this, it is necessary to explain the glory days of North Korea soccer -- the legend of quarterfinals in the England World Cup of 1966, 44 years ago.

June 30, 1966. When 66 members of Team North Korea and staff landed in London, many locals came to see them. For Europeans of that era, Asian soccer players were a curiosity. They were astonished by the fact that the average height of Team North Korea was 165 cm [TK: 165 cm = 5' 5"].

The culture shock was the same for the North Koreans. The players who went to the airport restroom were surprised when a "woman" came out of what was clearly marked as a men's room. Only after the interpreter arrived did they learn that in England, men could grow long hair as well.

It was a clear day when Team North Korea arrived -- an unusual sight in London infamous for bad weather. The local newspapers reported, "The players of the Land of the Morning Calm brought sunshine."

The group stage for North Korea was at Middlesbrough, in northeastern England. Upon arriving Middlesbrough, Team North Korea rejected the hotels assigned by the hosts four times, electing instead to stay outside the city at St. George Hotel, which was still under construction. This was done to save foreign currency.

Team North Korea's every move grabbed local paper's attention. An article reported that Team North Korea consumed more than one kilogram of chili pepper a day; a hotel chef was quoted, "If Englishmen ate chili like this, they would explode." Team North Korea appeared to be a team of mystery for Middlesbroughers.

No one expected North Korea to advance to the quarterfinals, because the same group had the contemporary powerhouses -- Soviet Union, Chile and Italy. The strongest one among them was Soviet Union, led by the legendary goalkeeper Yashin. As expected, Soviet Union defeated North Korea and Italy, advancing as the top team of the group. Later, Soviet Union would lose to West Germany in the semifinal in an upset, as West Germany beat Soviet Union for the first time since World War II. Led by its soccer hero Franz Beckenbauer, West Germany prevailed 2-1 after two Soviet players were red-carded.

Soviet Union beat North Korea 3-0. The scoreline implies a complete defeat, but in fact North Korean defenders did an impressive job defending the Soviet attacks despite overwhelming height disadvantage. The Times of London reported, "Only the final goal was the first and the last time when Soviet Union completely penetrated North Korean defense."

Middlesbroughers were surprised by Team North Korea. In the next game against Chile, more fans visited the stadium to cheer for North Korea. Chile had a strong team, finishing third in the 1962 World Cup. The final score was 1-1, but with an advantage to North Korea who outshot Chile 16 to 9.

The game against Italy was the last game in the group stage. Although North Korea was missing starters due to injuries from the Soviet Union and Chile games, it defeated Italy 1-0 thanks to Park Du-Ik's goal. Team Italy had to face a shower of rotten eggs upon their return home.

North Korea-Italy game in the England World Cup of 1966.
North Korea's "ladder header" beating the Italian defense.
Kim Bong-Hwan, Park Seung-Jin, Park Du-Ik, Han Bong-Jon 
and Lim Seung-Hui are forming the ladder, beating out Giacinto Facchetti.

For its first World Cup, North Korea advanced to the quarterfinals as the second place of its group. (At the time, World Cup finals had 16 countries.) Three thousands fans from Middlesbrough, fascinated by Team North Korea's game, traveled with the North Korean team to Liverpool, where the quarterfinals were to be held.

In the group stage, Portugal -- North Korea's quarterfinals opponent -- beat Brazil, the champion of the 1962 World Cup, by the score of 3-1. North Korea at first was leading by 3-0, but eventually lost by the score of 5-3. Eusebio, the best striker of the era, scored four goals.

Because of the time difference, North Korean people listened to this game live via radio on 1 a.m. Lee Sang-Byeok, a North Korean broadcasting legend who passed away in 1997, announced the play-by-play. Lee's voice was full of energy when North Korea was ahead by three. But as the team gave up goal after goal, his voice began losing strength. "Ah, Eusebio again" -- hearing this four times, the name Eusebio was deeply engraved in North Koreans' memory. After the North Korean team allowed the fourth goal, Lee began crying. In the crack of dawn, the entire North Korea turned into a sea of tears. As Italy still cannot forget Park Du-Ik, North Korea still cannot forget Eusebio.

Regardless, North Korea left a strong impression in its first-ever World Cup. What was the method of their success? People generally remember the Netherlands as the origin of "Total Soccer". But nearly a decade earlier, North Korea already employed a strategy that was essentially "everyone defends, everyone attacks." They overcame the physical disadvantage by simply running like hell.

Stanley Raus, then-president of FIFA, had asked "What kind of team is North Korea?" before the England World Cup. Upon watching the North Korea - Chile game, Raus pointed out the team captain Shin Yeong-Gyu and praised him as a world-class player. After the World Cup, Raus is reported to have said, "The world's best team would have Eusebio to attack, Shin to defend, and Yashin as the goalkeeper."

The players who returned to North Korea received the best treatment while staying at a hot springs resort in Hamgyeongbuk-do Ju-Eul for several months. But this was the time the watershed event for Kim Jong-Il's consolidation of power -- the purging of Gapsan line.

Gapsan line is the group of communists who were active around Hamgyeongnam-do during the Japanese colonial era. Kim Il-Sung, in a secret Labor Party Central Committee Meeting held on March of 1968, decided to purge the Gapsan line, which hindered the establishment of his unitary rule.

(Continued in Part II)

[북한축구해부1] -패배는 북한을 눈물바다로도 만든다 [Nambuk Story]

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.


  1. Wow, this is fascinating. Thanks, I'm looking forward to the next two parts!

  2. A boycott? Really? Why? I mean, isn't international sports supposed to remove itself from politics?

    What then would happen to the team's Japan based players. Too bad for you, even though you fought your ass off to qualify, because we don't like the government of the country that you represent, too bad for you?

    That's not really fair.

    Remember, America tried to do the same during the world baseball classic aginst the Cuban team, but IBAF and MLB people were pissed.

    I'm interested in reading parts two and three so I can see if indeed there is a case to be made for said boycott.

  3. "TK" once again decides to lambaste and decry the North Korean regime, spouting the same kind of hyperbole the dying U.S. Cold Warriors and far right-wingers of the 한나라당 like to drivel out. A boycott of the DPRK's soccer team? What a fabulous idea.

    Instead of using the world's sport as an opportunity to engage the DPRK, let's shun them and isolate them even more so the ruling clique becomes even more nervous and less likely to begin down the road of reconciliation and (relative) liberalization.

    (Remember, ultimately this is what the ruling clique want, and there is ample evidence to support this. But every time they start to get closer, some right-wing moron does something like call the regime part of the "Axis of Evil" which resets all the groundbreaking work by a certain Nobel Peace Prize winning former ROK president.)

    I can never really figure out what people like "TK" want when it comes to the division of Korea. Unfortunately, I suspect they have a hidden desire for a devastating war that will of course lead to the destruction of the DPRK regime, but also the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives on both sides of the DMZ.

    But who cares? At least we will have certainly killed that evil, bad, insane, blood-thirsty, terrible, maniac, etc. etc. Kim Jong-il! He's terrible, dontchaknow?

  4. I can never really figure out what people like "TK" want when it comes to the division of Korea.

    Have you tried asking?

  5. When referring to the inhabitants of Middlesbrough, it would be better to call them Teessiders rather than Middlesbroughers...

  6. The "Sunshine Policy" is the single worst thing to have happened to the North Korean people in the last two decades. It's based on a hilariously naive idea (that the North would ever even consider reconciliation) and has done FAR more harm than good.

    First of all, it's set the dangerous precedent of "we'll send you aid no matter what you do" which is what started this cycle we now find ourselves in. You know what I'm talking about - the one where the Norks do increasingly erratic things in order to scare everyone, and then reap the benefits of increased aid when they finally "decide" to back down (even though that was their intent all along).

    We also have the fact that the aid we funnel to them has propped up an increasingly weak regime WELL past the point that it would have collapsed under its own weight. If not for this appeasement to the North, the Korean peninsula could have possibly already been reunited.

  7. TSS,

    I don't disagree with most of what you've said. You're right that, economically speaking, it's better that they don't collapse suddenly. However, the point of the Sunshine Policy is the reunification of the peninsula. It does just the opposite - no matter the good intentions of the people who started it and want it to continue.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "the Sunshine policy weakens the North Korean regime by exposing the North Korean people to the outside world." It does no such thing. How does sending rice and other necessities to the Norks to be distributed to their starving people (people who are starving because of them) expose them in any way to the outside world? Do we even know where they tell their people it came from? Judging by what we DO know about the media there, I'm guessing it's nowhere near the truth.

    I'm also slightly peeved by your assertion here: "The new administration likes to take a hard line, so the NK govt really has no choice other than to take the action it has taken, considering the highest priority is regime survival." The new administration did no such thing. What they did, originally, was tell the Norks that aid was going to be tied to KJI following through on the promises he made to the international community - that was ALL. That is not "hard line" for any country, let alone a poorly-run, starving nation that can't survive without handouts from the rest of the world.

  8. Folks, the merits of the Sunshine Policy is not relevant to this post. The Korean appreciates a nice exchange, but you guys can stop there for now.

  9. +1 thanks for the Nambuk Story translate. These are my favourite part of AAK - in particular the way you maintain fluency yet still seem to communicate linguistic and cultural differences (I especially like your parenthesised elucidations for whitey)!

  10. How is a story about boycotting NK soccer not related to the Sunshine Policy of giving aid to NK?

    A boycott and the Sunshine Policy have the same end goal but different approaches and justifications.

    Debating the merits of either seems totally appropriate.

  11. I wrote a post about the North Korean team, specifically about the player Jong Tae-Sae who became somewhat of a media darling for crying during the North Korean national anthem before their match with Brazil in the World Cup.

    I haven't been blogging for long, but when I posted it it became the single most popular blog post my blog has seen. I'm sorry if this is a shameless plug, but you might want to check it out.


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