North Korea, the lowest ranked team in the soccer World Cup, faces five-time champion Brazil tonight with its hopes pinned on two players from Japan.
Japan-born striker Jong Tae-Se and midfielder An Yong Hak, who both play in the J. League, will represent the communist nation in its first World Cup match in 44 years, playing at 8:30 p.m. local time in Johannesburg. Ladbrokes Plc, a U.K. oddsmaker, rates North Korea a 1,000-to-1 chance to win the tournament.
The match comes as tensions on the Korean peninsula are at the highest in decades, sparked by the alleged sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship by the North in March. Japan is supporting the South’s call to the United Nations to impose sanctions against North Korea, and continues to seek the return of citizens abducted by the communist regime.
“These are tense times,” said Ri Kang Hong, assistant general secretary of the Football Association of D.P.R. Korea and chief director of the Korean Football Association in Japan. But “our players are intent on portraying themselves as good sportsmen. They know that each and every action they take on and off the field is tied to the dignity of their country.”
This is the first time players from Japan are representing North Korea at the World Cup, according to Ri. Jong, 26, who plays for Kawasaki Frontale in the J. League, and Omiya Ardija midfielder An, 31, were named in the national team last month.
The two players attended North Korean schools in Japan, hold North Korean passports and have no problem communicating with Pyongyang-based teammates, Ri said.
Second World Cup
North Korea, playing in its second World Cup since reaching the quarterfinals in 1966, has no professional teams. National team players earn about twice the average laborer’s salary, according to the North Korean football association.
Brazil comes into the tournament with five consecutive friendly wins, according to FIFA’s website. Of the 23 members of the squad, 20 play in European leagues, according to FIFA.
Hong Yong Jo, North Korea’s captain, plays for FC Rostov in the Russian Premier League, the only member to play in Europe.
“Regarding the match results, I can be very optimistic,” North Korea coach Kim Jong Hon said through a translator at a news conference on June 14, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Our players are very qualified.”
There was an adjustment period for the Japan-born players and the rest of the team, Ri said.
“There were issues along the way, including physical conflicts,” he said. “They had a tough time fighting to stake out their positions on the team.”
The Japan Football Association didn’t pick Jong and An for their national team because the players don’t hold Japanese passports and had played for North Korea in other international tournaments, said spokeswoman Yasuyo Oshiden.
Japan had 589,239 registered “zainichi,” people of Korean descent born and raised in Japan, at the end of 2008, according to the Immigration Bureau of Japan’s website. Many of them are descendents of laborers brought over from Korea when Japan ruled the peninsula as a colony from 1910 to 1945.
Jong, named one of the top strikers by the J. League last year, has represented North Korea in 20 international matches since 2007, according to Frontale’s website. In a World Cup warm-up in Austria last month, Jong scored both goals in a 2-2 tie with Greece.
An has played for North Korea since 2002 and has also played professionally for the Busan I’Park and Suwon Samsung Bluewing teams in South Korea from 2006 through 2009, according to Ardija’s website.
The team’s entry into the spotlight of the World Cup is compatible with the regime’s aggressive stance, said Robert Dujarric of Temple University’s Tokyo campus.
‘In Their DNA’
“All communist countries put a lot of emphasis on sports to show how strong, successful and mighty they are,” said Dujarric, who directs the university’s Institute of Contemporary Asian Studies. “It’s in their DNA. They think, ‘If we win on the playing field, we can win on the battlefield.’”
A South Korea-led multinational panel on May 20 found that North Korea was behind the attack, sparking threats of “all-out war” from North Korea. South Korea presented evidence to the UN yesterday to show the sinking of the Cheonan was caused by a North Korean torpedo. The U.S. and Japan are backing South Korea’s push for UN action against North Korea.
North Korean abductions of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s and Japan’s colonization of the Korean peninsula have strained their diplomatic relations.
“We will do our utmost as a matter of the government’s responsibility in order to bring all the victims back to Japan as soon as possible,” Naoto Kan, Japan’s new prime minister, said in a speech June 12.
The Korean Football Association in Japan was founded in 1961 to promote the careers of Korean players in Japan and help develop the sport in North Korea. The association is not funded by Kim Jong Il’s regime and operates largely through private contributions from Koreans in Japan, Ri said.
Until an indoor facility was built last year, no enclosed fields were available around Pyongyang during winter, when temperatures can drop to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit), Ri said. The national team typically travels to warmer Chinese cities to train because of friendly relations between the countries, he said.
At the 1966 World Cup in England, North Korea upset Italy 1-0 to reach the quarterfinals. This year, they face Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast in the group stage.
“Our goal is to break through the group stage,” Ri said.
Before leaving for the World Cup, Jong issued a statement saying he wished “to value my foundation as a zainichi.”
“The zainichi players grew up in a different environment and have a slightly different playing style from the others,” Ri said. “I am sure they want to bring that out in a positive way at the tournament.”