For the first time in 44 years, Communist North Korea has qualified for the World Cup finals, joining 31 other teams in South Africa this summer for the biggest spectacle in sport. Entering the tournament ranked 106th in the world, the lowest of any team competing, the team is not expected to finish with any points, particularly since it has been drawn in a group with the best in the world, Brazil, and the immensely talented Portugal and Ivory Coast.
Then again, very little is known about the team sent by Kim Jong Il. The Wall Street Journal has dubbed it The International Team of Mystery. The last time the North Koreans competed in the Cup, equally underestimated, they managed to force a draw with Chile, then stunned perennial powerhouse Italy, winning 1-0 and advancing to the quarterfinals. For this tournament, they had to navigate a qualifying season of 16 games, which included past Cup finalists, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
But as the WSJ explores, the most interesting thing about this team is the insight we can gain about the most closed culture on the planet. Only a handful of its players have ever played professionally outside of North Korea, and those that have play in neighboring Russia and Japan. They provide the only glimpse we have of these athletes’ lives. One such player, Choe Myong Ho, told Russian media about his training ethic amid reports he did not own a TV or refrigerator:
“What is a refrigerator for? It allows you to get cold drinks in the summer… And if you do that, you could catch a cold and not be able to train.”
Really? Is that what Glorious Leader told you? According to the players, Kim Jong Il personally monitors the team’s progress and development. This includes sending an agent to monitor Hong Young Jo for six months as he joined the professional Russian side FC Rostov. Mr. Hong leads a quiet life in an apartment next to the stadium. He has no car. The joke in town is that he has no idea what his salary is because it all goes to Pyongyang. The local paper has quoted him saying, “All my thoughts are on football and the party.”
Hopefully, for the sake of competition the North Koreans are able to come out and put on a good show and not be the doormat that everyone expects. But more importantly, as the team steps into a rare spotlight, hopefully the world is reminded of the oppression of communism.