North Korea’s World Cup Team Faces Shaming, and the Coach Becomes a Political Prisoner

Probably no country on earth would be too thrilled with a World Cup team that strikes out with three straight losses, but while other teams with unsatisfactory performances in South Africa faced sanctions that included suspension from a few games, as the French squad was, the stakes were much higher for the North Korean team.

No, they weren’t executed. (It seems that a lot of people have been wondering about that, judging from the number of hits this blog gets from search terms such as “did they kill the North Korean soccer team”). Even North Korea would not be that stupid or brutal, I hope. And the players, at least, escaped being forced into prison camps.

But they were subjected to a six-hour shaming session:

The entire squad was forced onto a stage at the People’s Palace of Culture and subjected to criticism from Pak Myong-chol, the sports minister, as 400 government officials, students and journalists watched.

The players were subjected to a “grand debate” on July 2 because they failed in their “ideological struggle” to succeed in South Africa, Radio Free Asia and South Korean media reported.

It wasn’t quite the entire squad — the two North Korean players with Japanese nationality escaped the punishment, probably because they (quite astutely) did not return to North Korea, but instead went straight back to Japan.

The Chollima’s coach was not quite so lucky, though. The players were forced to publicly blame him for their loss, and to criticize his performance. The punishment did not end there:

The team’s coach, Kim Jong-hun, was reportedly forced to become a builder and has been expelled from the Workers’ Party of Korea.

This is putting it euphemistically. North Korea’s labor camps are every bit as harsh, as you might expect. I suppose North Korea could not put its best football players in the prison camps if it ever hoped to field a decent team again, but maybe they figure they will still be able to find someone willing to serve as a coach even under the threat of being sent away to a work camp.

The coach was punished for “betraying” Kim Jong-un – one of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il’s sons and heir apparent.

It’s interesting, though, that the alleged “betrayal” was not of Kim Jong-il, but of his son. There has been a lot of speculation lately that North Korea’s recent impulsiveness and erratic behavior (well, more impulsive and erratic than even North Korea usually is) has been a result of a potential regime-shake up that is laying the path for Kim Jong-un’s eventual succession of his father.

Despite the harsh treatment the players and coach suffered, it is no surprise that North Korea did not have any staff or teammates defect in South Africa. In contrast with teams from nations such as Cuba, where such defections are relatively common, defections from North Korea are rarer — because North Korea holds hostage the family members of its nationals who go abroad. If a member of the North Korean team had tried to defect, he would do so knowing that his actions would essentially amount to a death sentence for his kin back home.