Part 1 of 2
On November 15th 2011, North Korea overcame Japan 1-0 in Pyongyang in a World Cup 2014 qualifier. To the average football fan, it was a meaningless game in faraway Asia, if it registered on their radar at all. For those who follow the unofficial football world championships, however, this was a day where footballing history was made; North Korea became the champions of world football. In a system whereby defeating the ‘champions’ earns the title, they are now the lowest ranked team to have ever won the accolade, 124th in the FIFA rankings at the time of kick-off. Despite this achievement, there will be no parades or medals awarded in Pyongyang, and FIFA will not be flying in Sepp Blatter to lay a trophy at the statue of Kim Il-Sung in order to commemorate the occasion, but for those of us who combine an interest in both football and North Korea, the title victory will live long in the memory. While North Korea has some way to go to rival the greatest of unofficial champions, Scotland (who have held the title for a total of over 10,000 days and 86 successful title defenses), the week ahead will provide North Korea with a chance to defend their title at the AFC 2012 Challenge Cup.
While this aspect of football is a light-hearted appraisal of North Korea, looking at the achievement through a more serious lens show us that the past four years has seen a number of significant changes to the way that North Korea has engaged with world football. From participation in major tournaments, to foreign transfers, and a structural reorganisation of the national FA, the DPRK has tentatively opened up in a manner that was almost completely absent for the best part of 40 years. What then have been the key changes, which players have contributed to this resurgence, and what politics are at work behind the scenes?
If in 2009 someone had asked 1,000 football fans to say something about the game in North Korea, the overwhelming answer would likely have been “1966”. An unknown team of footballing amateurs from the furthest reaches of footballing civilisation arrived in England, and almost wrote the greatest World Cup story ever conceived. Defeating Italy 1-0, and leading Portugal 3-0 in the quarter-final, the script was set for a fairy-tale. Portugal ultimately rallied and prevailed 5-3, ending the dream, but the footballing world would not forget the exploits of the North Korean team. It’s almost a tragedy then that politics and diplomacy ensured that the 1966 side would never have the chance to reach the 1970 World Cup, the leadership withdrawing the country from the qualification process in protest when drawn against Israel. This was a situation that would unfortunately re-occur during the 1978 campaign. It was the beginning of a long-term decline in North Korean football, marred by a poor standard of player, with the authorities sporadically failing to enter the team in tournaments.
It’s remarkable then that in 2010, North Korea once again took their place amongst the elite after a gruelling qualifying campaign that was, in part, successful thanks to a late South Korean goal against Iran in the final round of matches. The prize for their efforts? A group consisting of Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast; just as tough a draw as in 1966, when they were matched with the Soviet Union, Chile and Italy. However there was one significant difference between the side that charmed Teesside, and that which took camp in Tembisa; the 2010 side had some players who could, at a decent stretch, be classed as stars-of-sort.
A handful of the squad plied their trade abroad, namely Hong Yong-Jo with Russian side FC Rostov, and Jong Tae-Se with Japanese side Kawasaki Frontale. Fast-forward to the present-day, and the number of players abroad has increased further. Jong Tae-Se has since moved to the German Bundesliga with FC Koln, and hot prospect Pak Kwang-Ryong has featured for FC Basel. This isn’t to mention other North Korean players spread across Japan, South Korea, China, Russia, Switzerland, Latvia, Serbia and Denmark. In contrast, no foreigners play in North Korea, and quite likely never have. The only instance of a foreigner working for the North Korean football setup was when Hungarian manager Pál Csernai, formerly in charge at Bayern Munich, took over the reins. Despite a promising start, his attempts to take them through qualification for the World Cup 1994 ultimately ended in failure. Despite wanting him to stay on, Csernai made a sharp exit when the authorities started to ask whether he would consider becoming a DPRK citizen. It is clear then that changes are afoot. Through looking at these developments, NK can be seen as opening up to the footballing world…but who are these players, and what’s motivating this?
Hong Yong-Jo was part of the first-wave of a North Korean sporting experiment, which involved a limited number of players moving abroad to gain experience. Having starred for April 25 Club in Pyongyang, he moved to Serbia to play for FK Bezanija in 2007. Although Serbia is not regarded as one of the strongest leagues in Europe, the move should not be considered as a surprise. North Korea and Serbia (and formerly Yugoslavia) have ties stretching back a number of years. From the natural socialist bloc understandings of Kim Il-Sung and Tito, to cultural and military connections with the Slobodan Milosevic regime, Serbia has long been a cordial destination for North Korea. Surprisingly, the move lasted only a year. Despite a fairly average return of 1 goal in 7 games, Hong Yong-Jo signed for FC Rostov in 2008. It was to prove the pinnacle of his career, and from this platform he led North Korea as their captain on the field, scoring a vital goal in a 1-1 draw with South Korea during qualification for the 2010 World Cup and wearing the armband in their three group games at the tournament proper. Unfortunately, at the following Asian Cup Finals of 2011, he missed a crucial penalty in a 0-0 draw with the UAE, a tournament that would see the side exit at the first stage without scoring a single goal.
After the tournament he simply went missing from public life and FC Rostov were unable to track him down for months, with letters to the North Korean FA going unanswered. Anecdotal evidence from FC Rostov suggests he was only briefly contacted by virtue of a chance Skype sighting. In the few short interviews and insights given to the media, it emerged that he kept to himself, stayed with his minder, didn’t go out, and didn’t spend much time with teammates. He would stay alone in his flat, using his computer and watching North Korean videos. With this in mind it’s no surprise that he has now returned to April 25 in his home country. Perhaps he simply wasn’t able to adapt to a life outside of North Korea. For four years he had been the player that other North Koreans were to aspire to surpass, but it would appear that the torch has now been passed to a new generation of players.
If Hong Yong-Jo can be seen as the past of contemporary North Korean football, the present is undoubtedly epitomised by Jong Tae-Se. Unlike most of his teammates, Jong is not a native North Korean. Rather, he is a Zainichi Korean. Born in Japan and raised in a Chongryon school, rising through the Japanese football system, and enjoying all the trappings of a ‘capitalist’ country, Jong is as far from a North Korean representative as you can imagine. Despite this, he appears to be as dedicated to the team and country as any other player. After seeing a North Korean defeat against Japan in 2005, he declared his desire to represent the ‘Chollima’, and despite numerous red-tape barriers needing circumvented, he eventually received clearance to represent North Korea. In his first two games against Mongolia in 2007, he scored eight times. Goals were to follow against South Korea, Japan, Iran, Greece and Nigeria. His record at club level in Japan was around a goal every two and a half games. If anyone was going to boost the profile of North Korean football, it was Jong.
Despite suggestions that the first experience with his teammates resulted in an extremely frosty reception, there eventually grew a friendly and cordial relationship. The initial reaction is perhaps understandable; his wage is far superior to those of native North Koreans, he carries mobile phones and mp3 players, and of course, he possesses the freedom of speech and movement unavailable to his peers. Interviews given during the World Cup revealed a dual-side of Jong. At times he would look hesitantly towards the coach before allowing an interview, at other times he would contrast his own life experience with that of his teammates. One particular story recounts how they marvelled at his mobile phone, another told how they went to a toilet in Austria, and reeled back in shock when it was revealed they had to pay a fee to use it. There is a sense that this was as much a learning experience for Jong as it was for his teammates. It’s difficult to imagine what it was that stirred so much passion and romance in Jong for his adopted comrades.
The World Cup 2010 match against Brazil provided one of the iconic moments of the tournament, when during the national anthems, it was Jong Tae-Se and not his teammates, who burst into patriotic tears. The world watched as a Japanese-born Korean wept for a foreign homeland, and in an instant his star shone ever brighter. With this meteoric rise, it is perhaps surprising to hear that despite a solid record in German football, Jong has faded a little. Injuries have played their part, certainly, but in the recent 1-0 victory over Japan, Jong Tae-Se was substituted after little more than half an hour. Despite his abilities, Jong Tae-Se is simply the present of North Korean football. For all his goals, it may well be that Pyongyang doesn’t see him as symbolic enough of the Juche ideal. He has a North Korean passport, but sends no wages back to Pyongyang, is not at the mercy of North Korean security agents, has no desire to live in North Korea, is outspoken, and has the protection of foreign citizenship. He is more of a free-spirit than a dedicated exemplar of socialist sport akin to Lev Yashin, the Soviet goalkeeper who was voted the greatest of all time. Yashin was the son of Moscow industrial workers, contributed to the Great Patriotic War in a military factory, and turned out only for Dinamo Moscow, the notional team of the Soviet secret police. In his own words, “The joy of seeing Yuri Gagarin flying in space is superseded only by the joy of a good penalty save.” In contrast to these wistful words, Jong has said that “I’ve been looking for my home for a long time. I haven’t been able to find just one yet, but my biggest home is Japan.” His contributions will be accepted, but ultimately he cannot be the true hero that North Korean stories, and more importantly the North Korean leadership, require.
Who then is the potential vanguard of future North Korean teams? One possibility is Pak Kwang-Ryong. Despite being overshadowed by Jong Il-Gwan in 2010, who picked up the AFC Young Player of the Year award, Pak now plies his trade as a striker with FC Basel in Switzerland. This alone is no guarantee of future status, but he has a number of factors in his favour. Born in Pyongyang in 1992, he is likely therefore to be the son of a family considered privileged enough to live in the capital. At a height of 6’2”, he is also unnaturally tall considering the relatively small stature of most North Korean citizens. He speaks three languages and enjoyed a good education in Pyongyang. He turned out for Kigwancha Sports Club and then Wolmido Sports Club within North Korea, enjoyed success with the North Korean U23 team, and was part of the 2010 side who won the AFC Challenge Cup. Prior to joining FC Basel he was brought to FC Wil in Switzerland, and more recently, he was part of that side which defeated Japan in World Cup 2014 qualifying last November.
Due to his young age and relatively recent breakthrough, there is not an extensive list of interviews and features with the player. This makes it particularly difficult to say much about the player which doesn’t sound overly statistical. However since signing for the club, he has been joined by South Korean defender Park Joo-Ho, and there were worries about what kind of relationship they would share. Questions have been asked about whether this could prove to be a form of ‘football diplomacy’. As of yet, this has not quite proven to be the case. While they enjoy a cordial relationship in training and on the pitch, they have deliberately chosen not to socialise in private due to the presence of North Korean minders, and the political tension it might cause in Pyongyang. Time will tell whether he becomes a success story, but it does appear that he’ll be judged on his footballing ability and not simply on politics or his place of birth; this can only be a positive for those who advocate interacting with North Korea through cultural channels, and not simply at the nuclear negotiating table.
Gerard Clare is a Masters Student in Russian, Central & East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, with a professional interest in DPRK affairs & analysis.