Wednesday, August 04, 2010

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

[Part I]
[Part II]

This is the final part of the translation of Mr. Joo Seong-Ha's account of North Korean soccer history and analysis.


While North Korean women's soccer could not avoid the lack of food and the height disadvantage, it nonetheless advanced by leaps and bounds in the 20 years since its beginning, surprising the world soccer community. North Korean women's soccer is currently ranked fifth in the world, highest in Asia. While the national team's record is subpar, the U-20 team beat Germany -- ranked first in the world -- in the 2006 FIFA Youth World Cup held in Moscow.

North Korean women's soccer team celebrates victory.

This is the first championship for either North or South Korean team in any game hosted by FIFA. North Korean women's team was again the champion in the U-17 World Cup held in New Zealand in 2008, proving again their mettle.

The reason for the women's soccer team's success includes tenacious mental strength, rigorous training, high rewards and excellent coaches. The women's team trains with the men's team in North Korea. The 12 km run on every Friday is notorious for its difficulty. Once victorious in the World Cup, the players not only receive the People's Athlete honors but also their entire family receives Pyongyang citizenship. Because the women's team does relatively well, the better coaches prefer to coach the women's team.

Why women's soccer team, and not men's? Personally, I think North Korean women's innate toughness must have played a factor. As the proverb goes, "Southern men, northern women" -- women from Hamgyeongbuk-do Province, the northernmost part of North Korea are particularly tough and tenacious. Including Gil Seon-Hee (from Gilju, Hamgyeongbuk-do,) winner for the Asia MVP and idol for North Korean female students, more than half of the U-20 are from Hamgyeongbuk-do.

Soccer is undoubtedly the most popular sport in North Korea. Other sports popular in South Korea, such as baseball or golf, have been excluded after having been branded as capitalist games. Because of soccer's popularity, for each FIFA World Cup there is a recorded telecast of major games that lasts for about 40 minutes, regardless of whether or not North Korea made the finals. That may not seem much, but it is a significant gesture in North Korea. Because there is only one channel that is broadcast over the entire country, and because that channel only goes from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., 40 minutes is a precious block of time.

But not all games are shown on television. Even the ones that show on television appear several days after the fact. Because of that, diplomats would visit hotels to watch the games during the World Cup. In the hotels that house foreigners, live telecast is available through satellite. Games held in Europe usually begins around 1 a.m. Many children of diplomats would stay awake to wait for their father's phone call. When the father calls to tell the final score after watching the game, the children come to school the next day to relay the score to their friends who are eager to listen. I recall a story from one diplomat's son, whose father said after tallying the final score: "Son, why can't we make it to World Cup just once, when the people are so passionate about soccer?" That diplomat must have gotten his wish after North Korea advanced to the World Cup finals this year.

Soccer is the most open aspect of North Korea. There are even North Korean players who play abroad, such as Hong Yeong-Jo (Russia) and Kim Young-Jun (China). Team North Korea tends to have an open door, even including Jeong Dae-Se who plays in Japan and An Yeong-Hak who plays in South Korea. Because many players play abroad, and because they travel abroad often, the North Korean soccer players clearly know the vast gap between their own country and the world. Likewise, they are well aware of how South Korea lives. There are few other groups in North Korea who are internationalized to this degree.

How would such North Korean soccer players act when they come across one of their own who defected into South Korea? Hwang Bo-Yeong played ice hockey in North Korea until he defected in 1999. He subsequently joined the South Korean national team, and ran into North Korean players in an international game. According to Hwang, North Korean players reacted very coldly, calling him "Enemy" and saying "Traitor to the nation is beneath a human being." This is perhaps a reflection that compared to soccer players, ice hockey players have much fewer chances to go abroad.

Last April, Moon Gyeong-Min, a former North Korean soccer player who defected into Seoul, visited the North Korean national team who was staying at the Seoul Mayfield hotel. While many of the players were his friends, the players who recognized him pretended not to see him, turning their gaze somewhere else. But the starting attacker Hong Yeong-Jo continued to look at his direction. Apparently the two lived in the same apartment in North Korea, calling each other brothers.

Hong Yeong-Jo, captain of North Korean national team.

There is no telling what Hong was thinking. But he traveled extensively, and his father Hong Hyeon-Cheol is the manager of the 4.25 Athletics soccer team. It appears that Hong had strong enough background to have the confidence to continue gazing at Moon.

Moon also visited the North Korea-Japan game, part of the East Asian Cup held at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium, in July 2005. Again this time, the North Korean players averted their gaze. But according to Moon's grandmother who was living in Pyongyang until she defected later, the players quietly spoke among themselves that "Gyeong-Min made a trip to cheer for us."

In 2002, North Korea made a recorded telecast of the South Korean team's games, reporting South Korea's advancement into the semifinals. This was a significantly conciliatory gesture compared to just a few years previous. In the 1990s, the World Cup seedings were on the message boards in front of North Korean sports team buildings. While each group had four countries, only one group had three countries. U.S.A. was listed, and so was Japan; so the only remaining possibility is South Korea. Even if it was a transparent cover-up, North Korea never used the words "South Korea." Despite that, majority of North Koreans were always interested in their brethren's advancement to the knockout stage. I am certain that South Korea's legendary semifinals run was a happy news for the North Korean people as well.

North Korean soccer also has an open door toward South Korea. The national team trains in Kunming, China thanks to South Korea's aide. South Korea also provided aid of athletic equipments. But the infrastructure of North Korean soccer is extremely rudimentary. For example, the U-12 players who came to train at Kunming wore sneakers, not soccer cleats -- and this was a specially selected team.

The more strained North-South relationship is also chilling the sports exchange, because North Korean aid cannot be provided without government approval. A South Korean organization gave soccer cleats to the U-12 North Korean girls' soccer team in China, only to take them back because the final approval from the South Korean government did not come in time. Although the cleats were eventually handed out at the end, one can only imagine the disappointment felt by the young North Korean children when their first-ever soccer cleats of their own were taken away. Maybe a decade later, by the time those girls grow into national team players, North and South Korea might run the unified soccer national team.

Unified national team is a constant topic as an event to show the North-South reconciliation and coexistence. It is a measure that can be easily taken by each government, and has a great symbolic effect. The skill differential between the North and South may be an issue, but given that the South has the better men's team and the North has a better women's team, both country can save face by yielding the same amount in men's and women's team. It does not seem too far fetched to imagine a soccer team representing Korean Peninsula, under the banner of "Korea".

[북한축구해부3]-서울에서 탈북한 형을 만난 홍영조 [Nambuk Story]

Readers -- please note that Mr. Joo wrote this post before the World Cup. After the North Korean team returned with disappointing result, it has been reported that the team coach is now relegated to forced labor at a construction site after six hours of interrogation. It is not like anyone needs a reminder of this, but North Korea really is a messed up place.

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  1. It's terrible about their coach. I doubt any North Korean with coaching talent would ever dare to step up and coach the team if this is the precedent that is being set.

  2. A unified team is still far away from reality given the NK involvment in the Cheonan incident. Besides, SK's women team is fast becoming a dominant force in the world stage. Her U-20team place third in the 2010 FIFA world cup.

  3. Thanks for translating this series!


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