The announcement of Kim Jong-Il's death on Monday morning will undoubtedly have gotten you thinking. Some of you will have considered the geopolitical implications of passing of the 'Dear Leader' of the world's youngest nuclear state. Others will have contemplated the financial impact as the South Korean markets plummeted. Some will have thought of the 'ronery' puppet in Team America. Me? I got thinking of football.
Cast your mind back to the 2010 World Cup (don't worry, I'm not going to ask you to recall England's disastrous involvement). After scraping through their qualifying group on goal difference, North Korea reached the finals for the first time in almost 50 years. Their participation was to be a memorable one. On 15 June at a rain-soaked Ellis Park they took on five-time champions Brazil. As the teams lined up, Korea's star player Jong Tae-Se burst into tears. Some suggested he was crying through the fear of what would happen were the side to meet expectations and succumb to defeat. Perhaps. What it is far more likely that we were witnessing was the sheer emotion felt by Tae-Se of playing in his country's biggest game in decades. Amazingly, Korea managed to hold out for 55 minutes before conceding, and gained much praise in a far-from-disgraceful 2-1 defeat. Tae-Se was awarded man of the match after an energetic performance from the industrious striker.
North Korea's involvement in the tournament far transcended their footballing participation. They crashed out, losing all three of their group games (the 7-0 defeat to Portugal in their second match being the first match ever to be shown live in the country; in hindsight this probably wasn't the ideal game to broadcast). However, what was achieved was a new and refreshing insight into the world's most secretive regime. Firstly, the lengths taken by Pyongyang to maintain image were exposed to a massive audience; from tales of the broadcast bans, to the Chinese rent-a-fans deployed to follow the team at their matches.
More importantly though, the world was given a chance to glimpse behind the iron curtain and see the human face of the often nebulous concept of 'North Korea'. Their striker's tears went didn't highlight indoctrination, but showed the raw pride felt in pulling on the national jersey. As TV camera crews followed the team during their preparation, viewers didn't see the single-file automaton ambassadors that might've been expected, but 23 exuberant young men, laughing as they played daft warm-up games in training and pictures of sheer delight as they visited a Cape Town zoo. Football afforded the players a unique opportunity to see outside North Korea, and the rest of the world the chance to peek in.
What prompted me to cast my mind back to North Korea's journey were videos of the hysterical outpourings of emotion in Pyongyang following the announcement of Kim Jong-Il's death shown on various news channels, recalling the very different kind of tears shed by Tae-Se. His were not the product of years of indoctrination, or meticulously planned media-stagecraft, but testament to what sport means to people regardless of the regime they live under. With Kim Jong-Il's death part of the seemingly impenetrable opacity of North Korea may have just been breached. Maybe one day the world will get to see 'the real Korea'. Until then however, we have to find alternate ways of understanding this most complex of regimes; I'd argue that football isn't a bad place to start.
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