North Korea and the World Cup – As Ever, an Unknown Quantity

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Men watching the World Cup match between North Korea and Brazil in a bar in Seoul. 2010

It was about 2:00 a.m. as my taxi careered down the highway that leads from Incheon airport to downtown Seoul. Having just landed in the middle of a lightning storm, the rain was battering the taxi windshield and the GPS on the driver’s dashboard blinked indicating a breaking of the local speed limit. I was starting to wonder if it was really that essential that I make it to my 3:30 a.m. appointment on time.

That appointment was to watch and photograph the World Cup game between Brazil and North Korea. An odd appointment to be trying to keep you may think, especially for an Englishman based in Beijing. This however was the first part of a shoot I was assigned to for the Canadian newspaper the Globe & Mail which involved spending last week in South Korea.

Globe & Mail Website Screenshot

As many readers of this blog will know, last year I travelled undercover with the Globe & Mail’s Mark MacKinnon into North Korea to report on this isolated nation. During a fascinating 5 day trip I witnessed a country of such uniqueness, that I am quite confident I will never see anything quite like it again. This time however, I was heading south of the DMZ to try to gauge the reactions of locals in Seoul to the arrival of the neighbour on the World Cup scene.

In the build up to the game, nobody really knew anything about this team. Some people mocked them, expecting Brazil to embarrass the lowest-ranked team in the competition. Most people drew a blank when asked about them, in a similar way as if you asked them about the country in general.

At 3:30 a.m. we found ourselves in downtown Seoul searching for bars that were showing the game. It wasn’t easy at first. The few bars that had big screens seemed to be showing music videos rather than football. At that time of the night, young Koreans were packing the bars and some spilling out, making there way home at the end of a night out.

Hur Sung-Hun (centre), a restaurant owner in Seoul, watches the World Cup match between North Korea and Brazil. 2010

Eventually, we found a bar showing the game although interest didn’t appear to be high as only a smattering of people were paying attention. As I photographed and Mark spoke to people, it was clear that I was not going to get the crowd-reaction shot I was looking for. Instead I had to settle for quieter photos of the few supporters who were watching the game. After having talked to these people, it appeared there was support for the North Koreans although they were reluctant to express it too much, but it was definitely there.

Nothing To Envy | Barbara Demick

Amazingly, the North Koreans held out without any goals until half-time. As Brazil eased into a 2-0 lead however in the 2nd half, dropping heads reluctantly started to admit an onslaught might be imminent. It never came though. Conversely, North Korea scored, albeit in the 89th minute. A ripple of applause and delighted screams lept up from other bars near us proving that there were a lot of people who really did care about the North Korean team, even at 5:00 a.m. in the morning. By the end of the game, the North Koreans had battled valiantly and shocked the sporting world.

After visiting North Korea, I still don’t understand the country and having visited South Korea I am even more perplexed at how these two nations have evolved as polar opposites of oneanother. In an effort to try and understand more, I am currently reading Barbara Demick’s excellent book ‘Nothing to Envy‘, a look into the lives of people in North Korea told through the voices of ordinary citizens. So far (and I expect it to continue to be so) it is a really excellent read. To hear the voices of ordinary people in North Korea, is really quite extraordinary and is something we never were allowed to hear on our trip last year.

If you have an inkling of interest in North Korea, this should be one of the books you read first. We need more like this to start to truly understand this country and what has happened to her in the past decades.

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