Ben Hopkins

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North Korea: The Unknown Quantity (2010 World Cup preview)

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I have no idea what motivated me to volunteer to write about North Korea’s 2010 World Cup campaign, but I did for the excellent Just Football which has earned praise from the Football Association. Here’s the first of my four contributions to the site.

Just west of London’s Hyde Park lies Kensington Palace Gardens. In keeping with its status as one of the most expensive residential streets in the world, it also provides a grand setting to numerous embassies and ambassadorial homes. A stroll along one of the quietest streets in central London offers a small glimpse of unimaginable wealth amidst an unusual international community.

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in full, takes a different approach to its official London embassy, just as it does to so many other things. Football fans approaching Wembley from the south of England to visit Wembley may well have passed it but almost definitely wouldn’t have noticed in amidst the bland suburbia of Gunnersbury Avenue (the A406). The building’s only concession to ceremonial nationalism is a token plaque; its letters carved on a brown backdrop making it virtually unrecognisable even from the other side of the road.

And that barely even hints at the surreal existence of North Korea.

Korea spent almost thirty-five years under Japanese rule when it was divided after World War II. The United States and the Soviet Union’s temporary occupation of the country was intended to lead to self-government, but with each power backing different leaders, two states – each claiming sovereignty – were formed. Triggered by a series of conflicts on the border, the Korean War claimed millions of lives and was ended with an armistice that created the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a restricted area four kilometres deep that splits the two nation’s borders. Inside the zone is the Joint Security Area, the only spot in which forces from the North and South directly face each other. The relationship between the two countries has remained tense ever since.

Implicated by Bush as part of the supposed axis of evil, contemporary North Korea is often described as one of the most secretive nations in the world. North Korea’s Supreme Leader is Kim Jong-Il, son of former leader Kim Il-Sung and inadvertent start of Team America. The two Kims created a state in which abuses of human rights are routine and in which their combined cult of personality remains integral. It could all bizarrely amusing – Jong-Il being credited for his contribution to the national team’s tactics, a bronze statue of him is met with floods of tears by visitors, his official biography is comically overstated (“Extraordinary perspicacity with regards to things and phenomena… he had a faculty for creative thinking, regarding every problem with an innovative eye… he had a strong and daring character… possessed of warm human love and broadmindedness”) – if it wasn’t for the suffering that remains. Amnesty International’s 2009 report expressed numerous concerns including access to food, hard labour carried out by prisoners and the government’s control over the media.

Contrary to some expectations, North Korea allows tourists access strictly on their own terms. Travellers are required to tour as a part of a group with no independent travel allowed. Maintaining respect for the Kims is vital; the punishment for the tour guide is said to be far more draconian than it is for the traveller. Whether such travel is ethical is a different prospect, but events such as the Mass Games are an obvious attraction as well as the chance to visit a country quite like any other. As Tony Wheeler concludes in his book Bad Lands, “The unfortunate citizens of North Korea have no choice about their government and absolutely no right to say anything about it… I really hope we can all one day enjoy the Dear Leader / Great Leader Statue & Billboard Amusement Park.”

As for the average North Korean experience of watching their team at this year’s World Cup, it’s going to be far removed from the traditional / stereotypical English plan of getting tanked up in a chain pub. For starters only a minority of people have televisions, but more problematic is that the only footage likely to be broadcast is in the event of a famous 1966 echoing victory. How this will be dealt with is unclear, presumably the tournament will be completely ignored if the team fail miserably. Even if they beat the odds and escape the group, it’s likely that their eventual elimination won’t even be mentioned.

Of course, almost no domestic fans will be attending the tournament itself.. Stranger still, with no real support of their own, North Korea have enlisted a thousand Chinese supporters to back them at the tournament.

While the team’s 1966 vintage earned the admiration of the local Middlesbrough crowd when they eliminated Italy in the group stages, support for their 2010 equivalent is likely to emerge strictly from their sporting endeavours due to the regime from which they emerge. A proposed pre-tournament training camp in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, has been already objected to due to North Korea’s participation in training an army that killed thousands of Zimbabweans in the Eighties.

The luck of the draw has at least meant that North and South Korea are extremely unlikely to meet in the tournament, as the chances of each side progressing to the semi-finals are close to non-existent. What other surprises this near unknown of world football can spring remain to be seen.

Written by Ben Hopkins

November 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Football

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