Why did they compete?

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Ben Reiter of Sports Illustrated follows up on the North Korean national team's return from World Cup play in South Africa following its 7-0 trouncing at the hands of Portugal. After losing only 2-1 to Brazil in its opening match, the team looked like a winner to Kim Jong-Il, so he decided to air its next game live. That was unprecedented -- but it was also precisely when what I think of as its "Potemkin village defense" was exposed for what it was.

Reports that last week emerged from the South Korean media and Radio Free Asia suggest that those fears were justified. Sources told the latter organization that on July 2, just three days after the team returned home, its coaches and players were summoned to an auditorium in Pyongyang and subjected to a public shaming, six hours in length, on a stage in front of 400 people, including various ministers, athletes and university students. The players were "subjected to a session of harsh ideological criticism," a Chinese businessman said, and a sports commentator named Ri Dong-kyu was called upon to identify each of their failings, one-by-[one]. Only the team's two Japanese-born players, Jong Tae-se and An Yong-hak, were exempt from the session.

The further punishment that the players might have received, disturbingly, remains unknown, but it seems as if head coach Kim Jung-hun might have gotten the worst of it. He was apparently accused of "betraying the Young Gen. Kim Jong-un" -- Kim Jong-il's third son, and heir apparent. "There are rumors that coach Kim Jung-hun has been expelled from the Worker's Party, or that he has been sent to perform forced labor at a residential building construction site in Pyongyang, but such rumors are hard to verify," a source told RFA. [formatting dropped]
Reiter correctly identifies a double standard at work on the part of FIFA, soccer's world governing body, in allowing North Korea to participate in the tournament in the first place.
It is somewhat striking that North Korea made its first World Cup appearance in 44 years -- however brief and inauspicious it was -- in South Africa. South Africa was, after all, banned from Olympic competition between 1964 and 1992 due to its abhorrent apartheid policies, and only permitted back into the international sporting community once apartheid had been dismantled.
Agreed, but that's only part of the picture. Consider what a good performance by North Korea might have meant: Favorable publicity and a happy face for the oppressive North Korean regime, which regularly does much worse to private citizens on a routine basis than it did even to the coach.

It really doesn't matter how a team from a country like North Korea fares: Simply permitting them to compete in a tournament as if they hail from a civilized country is a monstrous injustice. But injustice part and parcel of egalitarianism, whose proponents wrongly take credit for defeating racism at every turn, and yet fail to see, time and time again, that the equal servitude of all, known as communism, is just as wrong.

-- CAV

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