North Korean Team: Face of Dictatorship, or Lovable Underdogs?

Commentators fret over whether they can cheer

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Part of the beauty of the World Cup is watching the battles of national pride on the field. To watchers, teams represent not only their countries, but their accompanying political undertones. Which is why, when considering the special case of North Korea, things get a little tricky.

Because the team trains mostly in seclusion, with limited access to the press, no one knows quite what to make of it. More people know the country's bellicose leader Kim Jung Il, making the team's mere presence in the tournament a controversial matter among those covering the competition. How, exactly, are we supposed to see the North Korean soccer team? As a representative of the country's brutal dictatorship or as an example of success among its impoverished people--and, in competition with wealthier countries, the ultimate underdogs?

Reminder of Dictatorship
  • Refusing to talk much to the media, coach Kim Jong Hun has been repeatedly curt in answering questions about the team, reports The Soccer Room. It says, "After replying in his World Cup press conference to the opening question about injuries — 'Nobody is injured. They’re all in top shape' — coach Kim bristled at a follow up from a South Korean reporter, speaking in Korean, who referred to his country as North Korea rather than the nation’s official title: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 'There’s such no country called 'North Korea,' he said, testily. 'Next question.'"
  • Due the fact that "few North Koreans could afford the journey or receive visas to leave the country," says Kate Holton at Reuters, those cheering for North Korea will be mostly Chinese. "Hundreds of Chinese soccer fans, including artists and well known singers, have arrived in South Africa to lend their support to North Korea in their opening World Cup match against Brazil on Tuesday."
  • In a response to the way in which he's been treated by the press, Brazilian coach, Dunga, acknowledges the special position that North Korea is in. He says, "We have to congratulate the Asian teams, they have evolved tremendously over the years. They are no longer the weaker team."
  • Taking into account the adversity that the North Koreans are facing just being in South Africa, Brian Phillips at Yahoo Sports notes that "because they can't afford better accommodations, they're doing some training in a public gym in Johannesburg... you can see them running routes around guys on the way to the Stairmaster, taking tourist videos of musclemen, and playing keepie-uppie in the aisle between rows of weight machines. In the meantime, the Brazilian players are smoking thousand-dollar bills in a hotel made out of Bentleys."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.