Skip to main content

North Korean soccer team provides window into unknown world

From Mike Mount, CNN Senior Pentagon Producer
Players of North Korea's football team warm-up during a team training session in South Africa on June 8, 2010.
Players of North Korea's football team warm-up during a team training session in South Africa on June 8, 2010.
  • North Korean team is as mysterious as the Communist country
  • Some believe rogue nations should be barred from world sport
  • Team's play in World Cup casts spotlight on hard-line leadership

Washington (CNN) -- Who is Kim Jong Il, leader of the most secretive country in the world, rooting for in this year's World Cup?

Chollima, of course.

That translates to "mythical horse." And it's the nickname of the North Korean team.

The team is as mysterious as the Communist country it represents. It practices in secret and it remains sequestered from other teams in South Africa before games.

If Kim Jong Il refuses to play political ball with the rest of the world, should the rest of the world allow North Korea to play soccer in the World Cup?

Popular belief dictates that a rogue nation like North Korea should be punished and isolated.

But North Korea is crazy about soccer, its top sport and a source of national pride. Banning the country's team when it is eligible for the world's most popular championship series would bring global shame.

The U.S. government says: "Play On."

"This is a tournament where countries have national teams and they compete for the right to play. And North Korea has survived the, you know, the qualifying competition," said P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman.

FIFA, the soccer's governing body, does not like to mix politics and sport, said Paul B. Stares, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Video: BackStory: Chasing North Korea

"As far as I'm aware, they have never suspended a national team because of the policies or human rights record of the national government, but rather because of political interference by that government in the selection [or] running of the team," Stares said.

He said South Africa was banned during the apartheid era because the national team was not integrated.

"To make an example of one team would immediately raise questions about another and they just don't want to go down that road," he said.

Cutting broadcasts of the games could be another option, but China's state-run TV stations would probably step in to help North Korea get a television signal, Stares said.

And a more subtle and potentially effective way to shame the country's leadership is to allow the team to play and let the North Korean people watch, giving North Koreans -- and billions of viewers worldwide -- a first-hand glimpse of condemnation of their country.

"No one likes to see innocent players be punished for the sins of their government," Stares said. "Neither is it desirable for the poor citizens of North Korea to be denied one of the few pleasures they have in watching their national team. However the World Cup is a huge global stage to embarrass and shame the North Korea regime for its recent actions."

Last year, Iranian players wore green -- the color of the opposition movement -- wrist bands in a World Cup qualifying game to show support for anti-government protesters.

"This [wristbands protests] would be difficult for censors to hide from those able to watch, particularly the elites with access to TV and international media," Stares said.

Even in the world of soccer, where fans know endless details about individual players, virtually nobody knows any of the North Korean squad.

But Chollima has three players attracting attention, according to a team report by CNN's sister publication TIME magazine. Forward Hong Yong Jo, good enough to play in Russia when not playing for his home team, is considered the man to watch. Striker Jong Tae Se, and midfielder Mun In Guk, are the "glue" of the team.

And the man who would get the least envy if the team does not fare well? Manager Kim-Jong Hun.

The North Koreans entered the competition as the lowest qualifier, and expectations are low. But the team is well known for its surprise performance in 1966.

The Korean War had ended and Vietnam was raging while the United States and the Soviet Union were racing to space and trying to outdo each other in the nuclear arms race. North Korea was already an isolated state run by the late Kin Il-sung, though it was hardly the security threat it is considered to be today.

That year, North Korea went further than anybody had expected. They even surprised dominant Italy, beating them to make it to the quarter final.

Today the country is so secretive that virtually nobody, including U.S. intelligence agencies, really knows what goes on inside its borders. That includes how its soccer team will do.

Even the team's jersey is hard to find in stores because nobody really has the rights to make and sell them, according to news reports.

So why the hype around Chollima?

The team provides a rare window into its country. Not many people see North Koreans on a day-to-day basis. When the team takes to the field it will be the first chance for many people to see North Koreans up close and personal.

Chollima's chances of winning might be as mythical as the horse of their name. But the one thing North Korea has managed to do -- both on and off the field -- is surprise the world. And this World Cup may be no exception.