World Cup Watch: North Korea
World Cup Watch: North Korea
09 Jun 10

Much may have changed in the 44 years since North Korea last fielded a team at the World Cup, but the country’s government remains as staunch as ever in controlling the flow of information both to and from its citizens.

Thus far, the addition of totalitarianism to the cosmopolitan, carnivalesque mix of the World Cup has been not only a sinister but faintly surreal exercise, with journalists attending yesterday’s training session outside Johannesburg turned away in farcical circumstances. Having been told that the practice would be open to the media, anyone turning up found the gates barred, and their presence most definitely unwelcome. A small number of photographers were accidentally let into the padlocked and guarded stadium, but were hurriedly ejected as the team bus arrived.

Previously, head coach Kim Jong-Hun had, somewhat sneakily, attempted to trade on the mystery surrounding his players by registering one of his reserve centre forwards as a goalkeeper (FIFA rules state that each team’s squad must include three keepers); his plan backfired, however, when he was found out, and told that striker Kim Myong Won would now only be able to play in goal.

Not that those cheering for the North Koreans are likely to notice the difference: the 1,000 or so North Korean supporters currently in South Africa are actually a cohort of Chinese actors and musicians hired out to cover the fact that few North Koreans possess the necessary funds and permission to travel to watch the tournament. Back at home, television coverage is likely to excise any mention of the team’s defeats or poor performances.

Government supervision also extends to the players themselves. Hong Young Jo, one of the few squad members to play his club football outside North Korea, was interviewed by the Russia’s Sport-Express newspaper in 2008, alongside a burly “translator” from North Korea’s security forces, who followed him at all times, granting or denying permission for Hong to speak to journalists or go for dinner with his team-mates.

The more sinister side of North Korea’s involvement in the tournament was underlined by the protests that greeted the team’s arrival in Zimbabwe for a series of warm-up matches at the beginning of June. Zimbabwean security forces trained by the North Korean army were responsible for brutally quashing a 1987 insurgency in the province of Matabeleland, killing between 8,000 and 20,000 civilians; when the North Korean team were invited to stay in Bulawayo, the province’s capital, mass public outrage caused the entire trip to be abandoned.

However, North Korea’s policy of insulating their team from scrutiny may collide with FIFA’s approach to publicity within the next few days: their rules state that all teams must be available for media appearances at least 5 days before their first game. With North Korea kicking off their campaign on June 15, it’s likely that we will shortly get to see players and coaches communicating directly with the international press. The extent to which they’ll be able to speak freely is slightly harder to predict.