PtG Comment 28.05.2010

North Korea – From the axis of evil to the group of death

It's easy - and perhaps convenient - to find political issues in this year's World Cup in South Africa. Just the fact that the World Cup takes place in South Africa might be seen as a political issue in itself. But after North Korea sank a South Korean warship in March this year, it is even easier to make political issues out of North Korea and South Korea’s matches.

Brazilian and Portuguese media have long since started a war of words before the meeting between the former colonial power, and the colony (group G). As have British and U.S. media before the meeting between England and the USA (group C), and Spanish and Chilean / Honduran media prior to the meetings between Spain and Chile and Spain and Honduras (group H).

But after North Korea sank a South Korean warship in March this year, it is even easier to make political issues out of North Korea and South Korea’s matches.

Korean optimism

It is the first time the two Korean countries participate in the World Cup together. Before the bombing of the warship and the revelation that it was North Korea that had sunk the ship, there was an optimistic hope on the Korean peninsula that this year's World Cup and a possible World Cup in South Korea in 2022 would lead to an improvement in the relationship between the two fighting states.

In advance of this year's World Cup, South Korean parliamentarians suggested that North and South Korea should organize a joint group of supporters for the two countries' matches - as they also planned, though unsuccessfully, before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The head of the South Korean bidding committee for the World Cup in 2022 - the former finance minister, He Sung-Joo - has also suggested that three or four of the matches in the 2022 championship should be played in North Korea.

Reconciliation on the sports fields

It is on the sports fields that the two countries have had their happiest moments since a ceasefire ended the Korean War in 1953. One of the highlights was the Sydney Olympics where the two countries marched together during the opening ceremony behind a joint Korean flag.

This flag was also raised when the two countries played against each other in a World Cup qualifying match in Seoul last year - one of the matches that led both teams to qualify for the Cup. And according to North Korean media, it was the tactical advice from Kim Jong-il that enabled North Korea to qualify...

During the qualifying matches, North Korea’s main supporters were the South Koreans. Foreign supporters are often the only ones cheering for the North Korean team when playing abroad as very few North Koreans are allowed to travel out of the country to support their team.

The last time the World Cup was in South Korea (in 2002 along with Japan) North Korean soldiers set up a television screen in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in order to follow their South Korean brothers on their way to a historic semi-final. This event is immortalized in the film "Dreams Come True" and is a strong testimony that even the hearts of hardcore officers can be melted by a good football match.

Massacre in Zimbabwe

The last time North Korea competed in the World Cup – in 1966 – they became the mascot of many, mainly because they knocked out Italy and led 3-0 against Portugal (before they lost 3-5).

In the movie "The Game of Their Lives", the players say that one of the reasons they lost against Portugal was lack of sleep caused by the crucifixes hanging over their beds in the monastery they stayed in before the match. The gods were against them in this fight.

If the gods does not support the North Koreans at least Robert Mugabe has sought to make political capital on the team. Mugabe has invited the North Korean team to prepare for the championship in Zimbabwe.

Travel-wise, this is an advantage for the Koreans as Zimbabwe shares a border with South Africa. Politically, it is more than controversial: in 1982, 20,000 Zimbabweans (Ndebele people) were killed by the army in the province of Matabeleland. The brigade who was responsible for the massacre was trained by North Korean advisers!

The case is not helped by the fact that the training camp for the North Korean team was planned to be in this exact province. However, it has now been moved to Harare. Mugabe's initiative has made several Ndebele organize the protests against the North Korean team when they play matches in South Africa.

From axis of evil to the group of death

 In the fight against terror North Korea was placed in the axis of evil. In the World Cup they will play in the group of death, where they will be up against Brazil, the Ivory Coast and Portugal. Few people give the team any chances in this group.

However, should the miracle from 1966 repeat itself and North Korea win their group, they might meet South Korea in the semi-final in Cape Town on July 6, should their neighbors end up as number two in their group.

This will undoubtedly be the most politicized match in the World Cup. If this occurs, I think the military exercises between the United States and South Korea will cease and that all the weapons in the demilitarized zone will be laid down - at least for 90 minutes, plus any overtime and penalties.

Until then, we will follow the discussions of whether Portugal is Brazil's B-team or not.

 This article first appeared on Andreas Selliaas' blog 'Sportens Uutholdelige Letthet' on May 27 2010. Follow Andreas' blog (in Norwegian) on