Songun soccer: Football politics in North Korea

North Korea’s relationship with the beautiful game is complex – and inevitably tied to politics

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Pyongyang may be the most peaceful city on earth. There is little to no violent crime, and the population consists largely of middle class citizens rewarded for their loyalty to the state with large apartments, cinemas, bowling alleys and other luxuries. North Korea’s regimented hierarchy and songbun policy of class purity guarantees this, at least in theory.

It’s not the sort of place where one would expect to see a mob of violent and angry soccer fans being dispersed by riot police. But in March 2005, as North Korea’s national team failed to win in a desperate bid to qualify for the next year’s World Cup in a match against Iran, football violence erupted at Kim Il Sung stadium in the heart of Pyongyang.

Coaching Iran’s national team at the time was a veteran of Croatian football team NK Varaždin, Branko Ivanković, who had been invited to coach the country’s team in 2002. Several years later, he told NK News that the team had arrived in the country having been asked to bring their own food, as there was apparently not enough available.

“We took the food ourselves, because they didn’t have enough for us,” he said. “The hotel was okay, but you know you could see it wasn’t clean, not kept well. The stadium was also okay, but they hadn’t finished a lot of things, you know.”

The stadium that day was packed with up to 50,000 spectators, said Ivanković, and almost filled over capacity. The North Koreans, at this stage of the competition, had little chance of progressing to the tournament, to be hosted in Germany the next year. The team was at the bottom of their qualifying group – having already lost to Bahrain and Japan – and 2-0 down, in the final moments of already ill-tempered match, after a controversial play by Iran, the DPRK players rushed Syrian referee Mohamed Kousa, demanding a free kick. Instead, the North Korean player got a red card.

“It was a very tough game,” he said. “North Korea, they have a good team, you know? They have good players, they played with a lot of patience, with a lot of emotion. For them, football is really the whole world – football gives the players a better life.”

The red card was the last straw. Pyongyang’s normally well-behaved football fans were convinced that the referee was biased, and began throwing chairs, bottles and stones at the pitch. Thousands rushed at the pitch as the match ended, preventing the Iranian team from getting on their bus, and riot police and soldiers intervened against the crowd.

“We had to save our lives, because the people were running inside the pitch,” said Ivanković. “I was scared and nobody knew what was going on.”

The game was followed by a “very depressing press conference,” he said, and the team were forced to wait for “two or three hours in the dressing room” to wait for the crowds to be dispersed by the police. According to a report from the time in the LA Times, it would took two hours for this to happen.

State media from the day mentions the match, and even hints of what took place afterwards, under the headline “Football Match Held between DPRK and Iranian Teams.”

“At the end of the match all the spectators were angered and vigorously protested the wrong refereeing by the Syrian referee and linesmen,” the report states, although mentions of the fans’ protestations are removed from later versions of the piece. But so bad was the violence that FIFA ordered that North Korea’s last qualifier match, to take place against its old enemy Japan, would have to take place, behind closed doors, in Bangkok.

north korea football photo
Fans enjoy a game in Pyongyang | Photo by (stephan), Flickr creative commons

SOCCER POLITICS

There’s a well-established connection between authoritarian regimes and soccer politics. The Iraqi football team under Saddam Hussein, for example, was a well-established political tool – and its players were personally tortured by Saddam’s notorious son, Uday, if they did not win. Communist regimes often used international sports to showcase the athletic prowess of the socialist man, too, and North Korea is no exception.

In March, as tensions escalated once again on the Korean Peninsula, the governing body of international football announced it was withdrawing $1.66 million in planned financial assistance for the DPRK. Originally to be provided through FIFA’s Financial Assistance Program (FAP) – a body which helps countries lacking the means to develop their football industry, the money was withdrawn, FIFA said, because of North Korea’s continued nuclear proliferation efforts.

“Since FIFA is domiciled in Switzerland, sanctions of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), as well as the Swiss Federal Council are binding for FIFA,” the spokesman told Radio Free Asia after the decision. “(North Korea) is currently subject to SECO and/or Swiss Federal Council sanctions. Due to these sanctions, we are currently unable to transfer any money to the (North Korea) Football Association.”

It was a move which passed with little controversy, but it goes to show the extent to which in international sport, supposedly the great equalizer and a place where politics are markedly absent, North Korea, like in everything else, is a pariah – despite the surreal sight of Australian schoolchildren waving the DPRK flag to greet the players in Sydney.

If the Dennis Rodman visit to North Korea last year, and the incident in 2005, teach us anything at all it is that, despite North Korea’s supposed rejection of the outside world, the leadership and people of the DPRK are not immune to the charms of foreign sports. And despite (unsubstantiated) reports in the British tabloid press last year that Kim Jong Un is a fan of Manchester United, anyone hoping to see the type of devotion seen in, say, British fans might be mistaken – the behavior shown by North Korean fans in March 2005 seems to be the exception, not the rule.

“It doesn’t seem to whip up the hysteria or mania that other footballing nations have when their teams play,” said Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours – a keen football fan who has organized matches inside North Korea. “So it is often treated more like fishing than football in other countries.

“I haven’t seen anyone distorted in agony or ecstasy as their team scores or lets in a goal, it just doesn’t seem to bring out the intense emotions that it does elsewhere. The stars are not well-known, even people who attend a lot of matches tend to have ‘number 7’ as their favorite player rather than even knowing the names of the team.”

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Korea DPR vs Turkmenistan during 2008 World Cup qualifier match in Pyongyang | Photo by (stephan), Flickr Creative Commons

Branko Ivanković doesn’t think that the violence was orchestrated by the state in any way as a response to losing the game. He said that the reasons why North Koreans would cause a disturbance at a football game were deeper rooted – possible an act of rebellion.

“It was an emotional reaction,” he said. “The country cares about their image, and about the situation in Korea, and they want to present themselves as best as possible.

“I think the North Koreans tried to do something because they were angry. Not just because of the game, they were angry because of the referee, because of the federation, also they were angry at their (leader), I think it was a revolt about the situation in North Korea.”

A CONTENDER

The 1966 World Cup was a major event in the country’s sporting history, according to Cockerell. Not only did North Korea qualify, but it reached the quarterfinals, and defeated Italy 1- 0. It was a historic moment, famously documented in the 2002 documentary The Game of Our Lives, and the players returned home as national heroes – still venerated in state propaganda.

Of course, there’s the constant prospect of a “Korean derby,” as it’s become referred to, between the two Koreas. It’s happened a lot recently, as the two countries play each other in regional qualifiers, and in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup they played each other four times, with three draws and one victory for the South. Two of the games were played in Shanghai, he said, because the North refused to allow the ROK flag to fly in Pyongyang.

‘(The two Koreas) aren’t arch-rivals … there is a gap between the abilities of the team and a lot of people in North Korea would like to see South Korea do well’
“I attended those games in Shanghai and there was an overwhelming South Korean fan presence,” he said. “But the Northern side did have a few thousand very vocal (in contrast to how they behave in Pyongyang) supporters from the North Korean community in China.”

“They aren’t arch-rivals though, there is a gap between the abilities of the team and a lot of people in North Korea would like to see South Korea do well – as fellow Koreans after all.”

The country’s recent history in international football has been marked by tantrums and bad behavior, usually coming from managers and the fans. Even outside of the 2005 match, Cockerell also said that, internationally, the North Koreans have not been adverse to cheating and foul play in their desperation to win – not behavior exclusive to the DPRK, of course.

“Several years ago DPRK played Australia in an Asian Cup qualifier,” he said. “We could hear the Australian players speaking to each other and some of the English-speaking tour guides were shouting down to the Korean bench what the Australians were saying so that they could adjust their tactics accordingly.”

As with everything in North Korea, it’s linked to political power. The leadership of the North Korean governing body of football, DPR Korea Football Association, is rife with head honchos of the DPRK’s military and political apparatus.

It also comes at a time where the North Korean state is embracing the often mentioned “sports economy” – a massive infrastructure project involving the construction of new stadiums, parks and, in the case of the Masikrong resort, ski resorts. The purpose of these projects is unclear, but experts agree that it largely intended to endear the country’s leadership to a general population increasingly moving away from the ruling party, as well as a way to reward loyal citizens.

Curtis Melvin of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University argues that much of the reasons for, and realities of, of the sports economy remains a mystery – experts can only speculate, he said, but the motivations may be more linked to popularity than improving the economy.

“The regime has never publicly addressed unemployment or inflation as policy concerns,” he said. “It is more about boosting Kim Jong Un’s legitimacy by offering certain citizens non-remunerative ‘benefits.’”

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Pyongyangites run a marathon | northkoreatravel, Flickr creative commons

“I suspect that it is part of Kim Jong Un’s stated emphasis on improving the lives of the people and bringing an end to belt tightening, etc. It is all done with the aim of building the legitimacy of the new Kim Jong Un regime.”

“Sports parks, children’s parks, skate parks, water parks are being built all across the country, not just in provincial capitals.”

President of the DPR Korea Football Association and big boss of North Korean soccer is Ri Jong Mu, who previously served as Minister of Sports until April 2014, and is a lieutenant general in Korean People’s Army – one of many connections between sports in the DPRK and the military. After all, it is the KPA, not civilians, which are responsible for building many of these large projects.

Cockerell said there is real change visible on ground, however, driven by the people as much as by investment by the state.

“The soccer school opened by the May Day Stadium looks very good,” he said. “And people do speak about football more and more, but I haven’t seen the crowds grow so maybe it I more of a grassroots thing that will become more evident as time goes on.”

“I know about the kids that have been sent to Europe to learn in Germany and Spain and there is hope that when they come back they will introduce new skills and methods and raise the level of the game.”

There are also unsung heroes to all this. While North Korea is an outsider when it comes to men’s football, Simon Cockerell said, its women’s team consistently does well. They reached the quarterfinals of the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, for example, a feat not matched by their male counterparts.

“The women’s national team have been much more successful, winning world cups at every level apart from the senior team,” he said. “They are one of the better teams in the world and are always contenders for the cups.”

“I would equate their level to something like Italy in the men’s game; not the very best team in the world, but a perennial contender who could beat anyone at some point.”

Featured Image: IMG_0500 by Nasya Bahfen on 2015-01-14 05:42:00

A version of this article appeared in NK News and, in a more condensed form, on The Guardian.

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