Northern Exposure: The People’s Team Abroad

Football teams wishing to be taken seriously at a World Cup should probably avoid losing all of their group games, especially if they concede twelve goals and score just one in doing so. Registering a striker as a goalkeeper in a futile bid to bend the tournament’s squad regulations is also frowned upon, as is hiring a group of Chinese actors to impersonate genuine supporters. As for claiming that the country’s leader imparts tactical advice to the bench during games via an invisible mobile phone, well, that sort of thing can get anybody a reputation.

North Korea had quite a World Cup last month, and almost entirely for the wrong reasons. Despite the huge potential propaganda value of sporting achievement to the reclusive Communist state, just about the only successful aspect of their brief appearance was the nostalgia it evoked for the days when entirely unknown teams could still show up on the global stage.

Such events are almost impossible today. It says something about just how saturated and obsessive coverage of the sport has become that only the most isolated state in the world is still capable of springing a surprise.

From a footballing perspective, however, exactly how isolated is North Korea? On the face of it, every bit as isolated as anyone would expect. The national team has never had a foreign coach, no overseas players have ever appeared for a domestic club, and North Korean sides do not participate in Asian Football Confederation club competitions.

Even the precise structure of the country’s league remains obscure, with the Technical Innovation Contest (TIC) apparently running from February to June, with the six best teams then competing in the Republic Championship in October. Remarkably, none of the winners of the TIC between 1960 and 1984 are known, and in 2004 Pyongyang City Sports Group became the first recorded winner of the Republic Championship – 32 years after the competition was inaugurated.

Look a little closer, however, and North Korean football shows itself to be more outward-looking than appearances would suggest. For starters, there is an established tradition of ethnic Koreans from Japan appearing for the national side, represented in the World Cup squad by defensive midfielder An Young-Hak of Omija Ardija and the now famously lachrymal striker Jong Tae-Se.

Jong is a particularly intriguing case, given that he was born in Nagoya to parents of South Korean citizenship and has never lived in the country for which he has chosen to claim such tearful allegiance.

Of most interest, though, are the native North Koreans who have been permitted to play outside the country’s tightly-controlled borders. At present there are no less than eight North Korean players attached to clubs in Europe, which may come as a surprise to the media outlets which consistently push the stereotype of an entirely inward-facing football culture.

The highest profile of these eight is clearly the aforementioned Jong Tae-Se, who signed for VfL Bochum in early July. The others are Pak Chol-Ryong at FC Concordia Basel in the Swiss Challenge League, Cha Jong-Hyok and Kim Kuk-Jin at FC Wil in the same division, Yong Lee-Ja at Serbia’s FK Napredak Kruševac, Ri Myong-Jun and Hong Kum-Song in Latvia with FC Daugava, and finally national team captain Hong Yong-Jo, who plays in the Russian Premier League for FC Rostov.

Two things immediately stand out. Firstly, North Korean players abroad appear to be following, at least to a certain extent, the tried and tested South Korean pattern of moving in pairs. This phenomenon has been particularly pronounced amongst South Koreans signing for sides in Eastern Europe, where the past year has seen Kim Nam-Il and Park Hye-Sung pitching up at Tom Tomsk, Lee Min-Kyu and Her Min-Young opting for Dynamo Moscow, and Hwang Hun-Hee and Kim Pyung-Rae briefly turning out for Metalurh Zaporizhya in Ukraine.

Going back a little further, Kim Dong-Hyun – on loan to Rubin Kazan from SC Braga in 2006 – was accompanied by a midfielder named Kang Sun-Kyu, who only emerged from the club’s reserves to play in a couple of Russian Cup matches. Meanwhile, merely having a Korean name seemed sufficient to get a contract at Zenit St. Petersburg in 2006, when the club famously signed no less than three South Koreans, Kim Dong-Jin, Lee Ho and Hyun Yun-Min, immediately after the World Cup.

That North Korea appears to be cautiously repeating this process is interesting, as it indicates that the authorities – who retain tight control over the movement of players, and indeed anybody, out of the country – apparently see no problem in using a policy associated with the other side of the 38th Parallel. Other models are certainly available in the region, given that Japanese and Chinese footballers usually move alone to Europe, and why North Korea should instead choose to follow the system used by their bitter enemies to the south remains unclear.

The second point of interest is the geographical distribution of the North Koreans playing in Europe. A brief historical detour should help to underline the potential significance of this.

North Korea officially practices a philosophy of Juche, or self-reliance. Although often interpreted as isolation, in practice it corresponds more to a delicate balancing act which attempts to limit the capability of external entities to exercise political, economic or military influence on the country. This is of necessity an active and evolutionary process, and as a result the focus of North Korean foreign relations has gone through at least three distinct phases.

The first followed the Korean War and sought to balance power between the Soviet Union and China, whilst simultaneously strengthening ties with Eastern Europe and other members of the Communist world. The second ran from the mid-1960s and prioritized post-colonial states and European countries considered to be potentially co-operative, whether through left-wing leanings or simple ideological indifference.

Finally, the current phase, which began following the collapse of the Soviet Union, centers on the USA and Japan and continues to veer wildly between diplomacy and hostile posturing.

Although it is still too early to form any firm conclusions, the initial signs seem to suggest that North Korea’s burgeoning engagement with the footballing world is following some of the patterns established by Cold War diplomacy.

Consider the following. The first native North Korean player to play overseas was Kim Yong-Jun, who in 2006 signed for Yanbian FC in the Chinese second tier. That same year, the duo of Lee Kwan-Myong and the 18 year-old striker Choe Myong-Ho moved to Krylia Sovetov Samara in Russia, where the latter was soon dubbed ’the North Korean Ronaldo’ by sections of the press.

Although neither were particularly successful, with Choe managing a single league appearance and Lee never making it out of the reserves, the parallels between the destinations of these pioneers and the direction of early North Korean foreign relations are nevertheless striking.

The coincidences do not end there. Just as the North’s nascent diplomatic development once expanded from Russia and China to Eastern Europe, so in recent times the region has become a new target for the country’s burgeoning footballer export trade.

In addition to the players currently featuring in the former Soviet bloc, it should be noted that the two at FC Daugava previously played for the club’s predecessor FC Dinaburg before its expulsion from the Virsliga for match-fixing, and that the national captain Hong Yong-Jo turned out for FK Bežanija in Serbia prior to his move to Russia in 2008.

Which brings us to the next stage – co-operative Western European countries. Switzerland of all places is probably about as different from North Korea as it gets, yet behind the obvious divergences lies a long-standing political relationship.

The two states established diplomatic relations in December 1974, and since then the Swiss have educated all three of Kim Jong-Il’s sons, financed the Pyongyang Business School and consistently denied allegations that prior to recent money laundering reforms, much of the Dear Leader’s estimated $4 billion fortune was stashed in various vaults in Zürich.

With a relationship that cozy – although the Swiss government plans to stop development aid to North Korea by the end of 2011 in protest at the country’s nuclear ambitions – the choice of Switzerland as the first Western European country to host North Korean footballers becomes less mysterious. By the same token, expect a long wait before any players show up in France, which has long refused to deal with Kim Jong-Il until he addresses what Amnesty International has described as ’widespread’ human rights violations by his regime.

Whether the pattern will continue to hold in what are increasingly fluid geopolitical and sporting contexts remains to be seen. In any case, it is also clear that wherever they are in the world, North Korean players abroad live under the same rigid controls as they would at home. Chaperones from the country’s intelligence service permanently accompany them, paying particularly close attention to their interactions with the media and ensuring that all interviews conform to a particularly banal – and strictly apolitical – template.

Whilst occasionally resulting in unintended comedy – during his time in Samara, the North Korean Ronaldo once held forth to the press on the dangers of owning a refrigerator, from which an athlete could catch a cold and consequently miss training – the constant surveillance reflects all too clearly the dictatorial society from which these players originate.

Ultimately, it is the dictatorial nature of this society that makes it difficult to do anything other than speculate on the motives and patterns which animate North Korean football and its relationships with the wider world. At the same time, it is precisely this nature which suggests that such patterns are in fact to be found, given that when it comes to the outside world, dictators – especially those responsible for mass starvation and repression at home – tend to leave little to chance.

Whether North Korea really is attempting to conquer the footballing world by adopting a South Korean policy and squeezing it into the geopolitical framework of Cold War diplomacy is unclear. Fact is, nobody knows. But whatever the truth, Eastern European football – as ever – and increasingly the game in Western Europe too, are interesting places to be.

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