While it has been common for ‘socialist’ countries to have paid great attention to sporting achievement, as a means of displaying strength and attaining prestige in lieu of military conflict, North Korea has not traditionally fared well in this area. The women’s team has admittedly achieved far greater success and achievement on the football pitch than their male counterparts, winning the FIFA U20 WC in Russia in 2006. Aside Japan, they are the dominant force in Asia. This however has been overshadowed in recent times with a drugs scandal that saw five players found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, and has seen the country banned from the 2015 World Cup. Even despite this success and controversy, the regime will no doubt recognise that the men’s game tends to attract far more worldwide interest than the women’s game. This leads us on, therefore, to ask ourselves why North Korea has taken an increased interest in the country’s footballing successes, especially bearing in mind that sport has traditionally been used as a vehicle in North Korea not for international success, but instead as a means of maintaining internal propaganda, mobilising the population and sustaining the Juche ideal.
In recent years, the DPRK has opened up to levels not previously seen, with a variety of foreign companies now operating in the country. Kim Jong-Un himself was educated in Switzerland, the country has strengthened ties with a number of regional neighbours in response to changing geo-political realities since 1991, and the incorporation of foreign technology has grown considerably. All things considered, North Korea has been edging towards limited engagement with the world. In a footballing context, this is manifest through one Karl Messerli, a Swiss entrepreneur who has taken a keen interest in North Korean football. Through his work with the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, plans were finalised that would allow a number of North Korean players to play abroad, with the Ministry accepting that the country was unlikely to ever improve if its players were limited to domestic football. This is particularly acute due to the economic and political system in place, which prevents teams from North Korea competing in regional club tournaments. As a result, Mr. Messerli now holds the transfer rights for North Korean players abroad, and is working to arrange further deals for players to join teams in Europe.
In this context, the benefits of such a policy far outweigh any negatives. Players who possess genuine talent are able to hone their craft at professional clubs, while the national side can reap future benefits from their abilities. A strong footballing side can bring prestige to the country at a time of transition. For all the regime is vilified by foreign media outlets, a number of stories involving the World Cup sides of 1966 and 2010 are sympathetic to their underdog status. This is unlikely to sway policy-makers at a governmental level, but it does appeal slightly to ordinary citizens of the world, who haven’t yet tired of the romance that is aroused when an unknown team upsets the status quo. On a more cynical level, it can also be seen as an easy money-making scheme. Sending numerous players abroad would see tens of thousands of euros in remittances wiring their way to Pyongyang every month, and international prize money alone is lucrative; North Korea received over 7million euros just for qualifying for WC 2010. If North Korea could produce a team capable of regularly qualifying for international and regional tournaments it would be a notable revenue stream.
Official tournaments pit North Korea against teams based solely on the luck of the draw, but more may be gleaned from the friendly matches that are played. Looking back at the history of North Korean friendlies therefore produces some truly unique patterns. Between their first game in 1956 and the present day, North Korea have played only three international friendly games inside of North Korea; a friendly tournament in 1959 against North Vietnam and China, and a 1979 tie against Japan in Pyongyang. While the former arrangement can be perfectly understood in the context of the Vietnam War, the tie against Japan seems almost unthinkable. This was during the time of North Korea abducting Japanese citizens, and an eroding economic relationship due to non-payment of due trade debts. In any case, North Korea defeated North Vietnam 5-0, China 1-0, and drew 0-0 with Japan. In such a context, North Korea can claim to have went unbeaten in home friendlies for 52 years and counting – surely a world record! On top of this, most teams would expect payment for arriving to play a friendly, a condition that resulted in Nigeria refusing to travel to Pyongyang for a friendly in 2010. All things considered, it would appear unlikely that North Korea will play a fourth home friendly in the months and possibly years ahead, even despite attempts to open up. If we also consider the events of 2005, where a 2006 World Cup qualifying match defeat to Iran in Pyongyang saw the unprecedented sight of North Koreans rioting over the relatively trivial matter of a refereeing decision, the regime is unlikely to make a habit of organising further matches where avoidable.
The country’s most recently friendly game in any country was against Kuwait in February 2012, a tie played on Chinese soil. If we look at it in footballing terms, this shouldn’t be a surprise. Both teams play in the Asian Federation, and are of similar standard. However on a political level, more may be taken from it, particularly as the North Korean friendly game before this was in August 2011 against…you guessed it, Kuwait again, this time in Kuwait City. In all, North Korea has played Kuwait seven times since 1998, a significant amount considering North Korea does not always play friendlies. Even stranger is that these games have been played in Kuwait, Egypt and China, but never North Korea. This is despite the growing links between the two countries, and the introduction in May 2011 of an air route between Pyongyang and Kuwait, which would presumably make it easy for a Kuwaiti national team to travel to North Korea. There is an estimated North Korean population in Kuwait of around 3,000-4,000 construction workers, while before this North Korea opened an embassy in Kuwait around 2003, and established diplomatic relations around 2001. From this, it can be said that footballing links run parallel to the level of diplomatic relations. Kuwait therefore can be seen as a growing economic partner for North Korea, at least on a regional level.
This is just one example of football and diplomacy intertwining for North Korea. Other opponents in friendly matches after the 2010 World Cup include Jordan, Iraq, Qatar, Yemen, Singapore, Vietnam, China and Bahrain. Based on the assumption of political considerations in arranging friendlies, the Middle East and South Asia are key areas in North Korean foreign policy. On only a small number of occasions have North Korea ventured out of its safe zone to play teams from other continents. Before the tournament in South Africa, North Korea launched an extensive run of games in the build-up, spanning Europe, South America and Africa. In 1973 they played Norway, which appears to be a major exception to their typical choice of opponents. 1974, 1976 and 1982 saw games against Bulgaria in Sofia, which were very likely to have coincided with the visit of Kim Il-Sung to the country in 1975, whereas the 1982 match coincides with further visits to Eastern Europe, a year in which the national side also played Poland. They even played a game against Canada in a friendly tournament in Singapore in 1986. The undoubted political high point of foreign friendlies though came on October 19th 1991, in a match that had the leadership in Pyongyang purring for months. As part of the on-going denuclearisation talks, North Korea travelled to the USA to play a friendly match in the capital’s RFK Stadium, ironically enough the 41st anniversary of UN forces entering Pyongyang in the Korean War. On this occasion, the visitors were also victorious, running out 2-1 winners in a match likely to be more memorable for the result than the quality of the play itself.
Overall the future of North Korean football has taken an interesting turn at the crossroads. While there are still clear political and diplomatic concerns behind who the national team plays, and where these matches are played, there are some suggestions that the country is opening up in other ways. Embracing the notion of transferring players abroad to gain experience and superior training is likely to see a rise in the long-term progress of the national team, and possibly see more regular appearances in, at the very least, the Asian Cup. The exposure of players to alternative styles of play and concepts of success, not to mention a variety of cultures, should prove interesting for the composition of the team, and the future interaction of those who play abroad with those who still play in the North Korean domestic leagues. Perhaps one area to watch for in future is whether coaches and trainers are sent abroad to observe and learn from other countries. One thing is certain; North Korea seems intent on no longer being the unknown quantity of international football.