North Korea has earned the moniker ‘The Hermit Kingdom’ for good reason: less is known about this nation than any other on Earth.
More is known about middle-ranking leaders of ISIS and Al Qaeda than is known of Kim Jong-un (the ‘Great Successor’), the leader of a nuclear-armed state with one of the world’s largest standing armies.
This dearth of knowledge extends to North Korean football.
The rule book is thrown out the window when it comes to North Korea. The usual requirements relating to state interference, which has seen the likes of Nigeria and Indonesia suspended, do not apply. As the clubs do not follow any FIFA transfer or registration regulations, themselves being arms of various ministries and departments, they are excluded from AFC competitions.
Yet despite the perceived intransigence built around the philosophy of ‘Juche’ (Korean self-sufficiency), there is an understanding that North Korean football matters. It is one of the very few outlets where the nation is able to constructively engage with the broader international community.
Football and the fate of the national teams is a matter of fierce pride. The famous run of the men’s team to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1966 was not just seen as a matter of football. 1966 was during the height of the Cold War, a period where Soviet and Chinese patronage in the North and a repressive dictatorship in the South meant that the North was the wealthier and more developed of the two Koreas.
Kim Il-sung’s (the ‘Great Leader’) message to the world was that the North was the defender of all things Korean, and the South merely a US puppet state soon to merge with its wealthy and enlightened brother. The success of the Chollima (the moniker of both the men’s and women’s national team) underlined this on the World stage; the propaganda value was immense.
Even the term given to the national teams is steeped in meaning. The Chollima is a mythical winged horse, capable of moving at great speed. It is also the name given the doctrine developed by Kim Il-sung of driving oneself beyond the physical limit out of love for the leader (now Kim Jong-un) and everything he represents; the veritable definition of revolutionary zeal.
Sport provided a serious blow to North Korean political aspirations when South Korea hosted the 1988 Olympics. Not only was it a declaration of the economic arrival of the South, but also that the South was now seen globally as a legitimate voice for Korea in world affairs. This was compounded in 2002 when South Korea jointly hosted the FIFA World Cup with the old foe, Japan.
The FIFA World Cup was a low point for North Korea. The famine of the 1990s had left the country moribund and its men’s national team had retreated from international competitions for several years, including a complete hiatus from 1993 to 1998. On top of this, the South Koreans (Taegeuk Warriors) were receiving international plaudits, accolades previously reserved for the North.
The large disparity between the fortunes of the two countries drove the North Korean government to meet its Southern rival militarily through nuclear weapons, and on the sporting field through football.
The North’s re-engagement with international football following the 2002 World Cup was immediate.
The Chollima began entering qualification tournaments, culminating in an appearance at the 2010 World Cup. The side played well against Brazil, catching many unawares, which led to the fateful decision by Kim Jong-il (the ‘Dear Leader’) to allow a live stream of the Portugal game into the country. The resulting 7-0 thrashing was not what the regime were expecting, and the mistake was not repeated.
Passion for the Chollima and what it represents created problems in 2005. Despite North Korea fielding a strong side including several Japanese-born Koreans, the side struggled at times and suffered a 0-2 loss to Iran in Pyongyang. The result sent the crowd into a frenzy, with the Iranians and match officials stranded in the centre of the pitch until police could clear the stadium.
Since then, games have often been watched in austere silence by huge crowds, a situation which highlights the enigma that is North Korea.
A game against South Korea in 2008 was moved to Shanghai after the North Koreans ostensibly refused to allow the South Korean flag to be flown or anthem played. It was a 1-1 draw, and the return match a 1-0 loss, which the North Koreans blamed upon deliberate food poisoning from their Southern hosts. It was a reminder that in North Korea, football is far more than just sport.
The investment in women’s football has been substantial, with all top level clubs fielding women’s teams. This saw the women’s Chollima reach the quarter-finals of the 2007 World Cup and win the Asian Cup in 2001, 2003 and 2008. Meanwhile, their South Korean counterparts have yet to make a serious impact on the women’s game, currently sitting at 15th in the world, compared to Chollima’s sixth.
The pressure to perform though came at a cost, with systematic doping discovered in the 2011 World Cup, leading to a banning of the Chollima from the 2015 tournament. It was not long before accusations of state complicity arose.
Interestingly, football now provides one of the very few insights into life in North Korea. For the 2015-16 season, short highlights of each local match have been available on Youtube, something not seen in any other facet of North Korean society beyond official news broadcasts. It is less a sign of North Korea opening up and more a sign of the pride and importance the North Korean leadership places upon the World Game.
While it may not happen anytime soon, we can but hope to one day see April 25 (the team of the Korean People’s Army and most successful club in the country) return to the field in an AFC competition, something they have not done for 18 years.
I have not seen anything beyond snippets of highlights, however given the number of players from April 25 who play in the Chollima, one can surmise that they would provide decent competition.
Engagement with North Korea matters to everyone in the region, and football provides an avenue for this to occur. That is why I found it pleasing to see sections of the Australian crowd cheering on the North Koreans against the Saudis in the Asian Cup match in Melbourne.
Perhaps, deep down, we are also aware that constructive engagement with North Korea is good for everyone concerned.