How does everyday opinion understand football in North Korea? It’s not hard to guess. In 2014 a parody story went viral in the British tabloid press claiming that North Korea had told their citizens that they had “won the world cup”, coming complete with a falsified video of Kim Jong-un purportedly celebrating in front of a crowd. Owing to the nature of press coverage about North Korea, the public naturally believed the story uncritically because “that’s how they do in it North Korea” apparently. That belief persists. As the current world cup commenced last week we posted up a video of North Korea’s participation in the 2010 tournament, only to receive a number of replies (who always think we literally are North Korea) mocking those claims. Such has became a staple element of “popular culture” concerning the DPRK, however, even a simple visit to the country itself is enough to shatter the myths concerning North Korea’s footballing achievements. North Koreans know more about global football than yout think and the reality might surprise you. Here’s an introduction to that reality.
Knowledge of the English Premier League
The first clue that that stories such as the world cup one are nonsense is the fact North Koreans are very much aware of the Premier League in England, its teams and its players. This seems surprising given the isolated nature of the country’s communications (hence what justifies the world cup claim to most) but it’s true. I’ve been able to talk to North Koreans about Chelsea, Manchester United and City, they have been able to stay readily up to date with the names of players and managers, as well as how they have been doing. This may seem unusual, however the premier league is relatively trivial in contrast to a number of other topics North Koreans “know” about, including politically sensitive ones I have encountered such as politics and elections in South Korea…
Knowledge of the very world cup that they were “lied” to about
So I had the privilege of visiting North Korea the week the 2014 world cup ended, just as that spurious claim that they had won the world cup was going viral. Guess what? I arrived and the claim was nowhere to be found. Not only that, but one of my first ever conversations with a North Korean was about that world cup, something which became one of my most amusing memories of the country. At Joint security area in Panmunjom the North Korean colonel wanted to talk about football, he asked me why England had done so poorly in the world cup despite Wayne Rooney being a “good player” and he seemed under no illusions about the reality of it. On another note he also wanted to know why Manchester United had flopped so poorly under David Moyes… a name which would later come back to haunt me as a Sunderland fan. There was no “party line” about claiming to win the world cup. Later I saw that world cup footage was being screened to North Korean State Television. Yes as a North Korean, you can watch the world cup.
Growing football memorabilia in Pyongyang
As commented on previous posts, life in North Korea is changing. Influence of the international world is creeping and elements of global popular culture are appearing in the things people do, wear, use and sell. Football is very much a part of this trend. During my times in North Korea I’ve observed people wearing the memorabilia of very famous football sides around the world. I recall a young man wearing a Brazil National Football Team coat and a little boy who was wearing an F.C Barcelona t-shirt. Given that we’ve already established knowledge of things such as the Premier League is growing, this should not surprise us. In this instance, such goods find their way into the country via China as obviously, no major sports brands sell their products in North Korea.
Conclusion: North Korea isn’t closed off when it comes to football
Ignore the British tabloid press. They are well known for misinformation and on a political level, are trusted by fewer and fewer people, North Korea is no exception where coverage has been highly sensationalised due to its high “clcikbait” value and the gullible tendency of readers to believe these stories. When it comes to the world’s most popular sport, Football in North Korea is not a closed off or taboo subject. Whilst certainly the country’s genuine sporting feats are touted by the state media, they do not hysterically fabricate or make things up. To make claims like this about the country and the world cup also makes a mockery of the real issues and challenges people in the country face. The above can also show us how visiting the country at least once offers a sobering experience of how to assess it and its people.