A Fatal Loss of Face?

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Portugal’s 7-0 massacre of North Korea got me thinking about death. Not the metaphorical kind. As I watched North Korea’s coach Kim Jong Hun prostrate himself for having abandoned the Winged Horses’ tight defensive posture in favor of an ill-fated offensive campaign, all I could think was is this guy gonna get executed when he returns to the Hermit Kingdom? Or, at the very least, disappear into the bowels of some labor camp where twigs and leaves count as dinner?

It’s not a completely crazy question. This is a nation where Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and his henchmen have killed people for far slighter transgressions than a rout on the football world stage. For the first time ever, the Portugal-North Korea match was broadcast live on North Korean television. Imagine the toe-curling embarrassment in Pyongyang when Portugal deposited North Korea in deep, deep kimchi. Leading up to the World Cup, Coach Kim told the world: “Perhaps there is no other team in the world who would be fighting with the same dedication to please the leader and to bring fame to their motherland.” A displeased Dear Leader and World Cup infamy surely wasn’t what Coach Kim was imagining.

Up until the Portugal match, North Korea was an unlikely World Cup darling. Slotted in the Group of Death along with Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal, North Korea managed a very respectable 2-1 loss to Brazil in its opening game, despite being the lowest-ranked team in South Africa. In its only other World Cup appearance, back in 1966, North Korea shocked Italy to reach the quarter-finals. (In an echo of this year’s World Cup, North Korea’s 1966 hopes were eventually dashed by Portugal.) More recently, North Korea has managed a few Asian football thrashings of its own, most notably in 2005 when it defeated Guam 21-0.

North Korea isn’t the only place where soccer is a deadly serious pursuit. In 1994, Colombian defender Andrés Escobar was killed in Medellín soon after his World Cup efforts were marred by an own goal in a match against the U.S. And then there’s Somalia, where Muslim extremists last week killed two football fans for daring to watch World Cup matches, despite a ban on all such trivial entertainment.

You’ve got to hope that skipper Kim, who reportedly gets coaching tips from the Dear Leader himself, will redeem himself in North Korea’s last match with the Ivory Coast. Luckily, some of his charges are ensured safety after the World Cup. They are players of Korean descent who were born and raised in Japan—and can return there after South Africa. (Even today, some ethnic Koreans in Japan—some of whom were conscripted as laborers early last century and still face discrimination—send their children to private schools that teach North Korean ideology.) But what about the others, including 23-year-old goalkeeper Ri Myong Guk, who was nominated as Asian Footballer of the Year in 2009? His given name means “bright country,” surely a patriotic flourish by his parents. I have a feeling his future back in North Korea won’t be quite so bright.