North Korea’s international men of mystery spark frenzy, linking politics and football

By John Leicester, AP
Friday, June 18, 2010

Frenzy over North Korea’s men of mystery

TEMBISA, South Africa — The footballing officialdom of FIFA would like North Korea’s players to be viewed and treated like any other team at the World Cup. Yet pretty much everything about these international men of footballing mystery makes that impossible.

Other teams don’t need to be shielded by FIFA officials telling reporters not to ask political questions. Strictly football only.

Other teams have been followed here by legions of real fans — not the 100 or so men in team colors who came in the other day to cheer when the Koreans defied but ultimately lost to Brazil.

Other teams don’t cause a media frenzy when they omit four players from a match sheet. One assumption when that happened this week was that the “missing” players might have gone AWOL and might be seeking political asylum. That is not as crazy as it sounds: Thousands of their countrymen have already fled in the past decade, escaping famine, the secret police and the cult of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s so-called “Dear Leader.”

Kim better than anyone knows that football is not apolitical. He is a known football fan and, according to a national coach who defected, exploited North Korea’s legendary quarterfinal run at the 1966 World Cup to further his own ascent to power. Kim is said by his propagandists to have dispensed nuggets of footballing wisdom to this World Cup side, so its success or failure is most definitely a political matter.

Who knows, if North Korea does well again this time, then Kim’s youngest son might be able to milk it, too. He’s thought to be waiting in the wings for the day, perhaps not that far off, when his ailing 68-year-old father dies. Riding the World Cup team’s coattails could be a political leg-up that Kim Jong Un could use.

The succession from Kim to littler Kim could be one reason why North Korea’s government-run propaganda machine —there is no free press in the Hermit Kingdom — is giving unprecedented coverage to the team and its sojourn in South Africa. North Korean television showed the team’s 2-1 defeat to Brazil about 17 hours later.

North Korea has shown World Cup action involving the team from rival South Korea, too. That despite the fact that the South holds the North accountable for the March sinking of a warship. North Korea says it had nothing to do with the sinking. But a five-nation investigation turned up some pretty damning evidence. Technically, the two countries are still at war.

FIFA doesn’t want these political issues to muddy the mood at its lucrative football party. It has accommodated Kim’s government. When North Korea huffed and puffed that it couldn’t allow South Korea’s flag to be raised or its anthem to be played at a World Cup qualifier in Pyongyang in 2008, FIFA shifted the game to neutral ground in China. In doing so, it proved that North Korea is not just a team like any other and that football is not entirely divorced from politics.

In the end, the four North Korean footballers weren’t missing at all. They were trotted out for training Friday so assembled media from around the world could film their every run and their every touch of a ball.

The intended message was, move on, there’s nothing out of the ordinary here.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)

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