In a world that is subject to constant turmoil and distress, it is refreshing every four years to watch 32 different countries revel in something they can all agree on: Soccer.
One of the most endearing aspects of the World Cup is that citizens of different cultures agree to put politics aside for at least two hours to cheer on their respective countries.
But what if politics and sport are inexorably attached to one another?
Such is the case with North Korea.
Most people have treated the presence of the North Korean team in South Africa in a tongue-in-cheek manner. But the circumstances of the citizens living in North Korea are not so funny, and the historical precedent is there to indicate that the treatment that the players are subjected to may not be so funny either.
There’s no denying that the squad rightfully earned its spot in the World Cup field. They qualified in the hotly contested Asian region and performed admirably representing their country.
But the question arises if they are truly “representing their country.”
One of the most distinctive aspects of the World Cup is the influx of fans that travel from around the world to support their homeland. The colorful cultures, as well as costumes, define the atmosphere of the World Cup.
The North Korean fans that appeared at their first match against Brazil were certainly distinctive, but in an eerie sort of way.
During the match, a block of seats in the stadium were occupied by emotionless men and women who were dressed in identical red clothing, and could be seen holding small North Korean flags. There was speculation that these fans were not Korean at all, and were in fact paid actors from China.
The LA Times later spoke to one of the participants in the group named Kim Yong Chon, who stated that the fans were in fact North Korean, and had been carefully recruited by the government to make the trip.
The LA Times further reported that these fans “spoke only infrequently to one another — Chon said they didn't know one another before coming to South Africa — and mainly reacted to the action on the field only when directed to do so by a man who stood before them like an orchestra conductor.”
Countrymen that are carefully recruited by the government and are only permitted to show emotion at the order of a conductor hardly seems in line with the spirit of the World Cup. In fact, they appear to be little more than an extension of a radical dictators propaganda machine.
And oddly enough, these North Koreans that were forced to temper their emotions are among the luckiest citizens in the country — at least they’re going to be allowed to watch their home side play in the World Cup.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il ordered the state-run television networks in his country to not broadcast North Korea’s World Cup matches live, and to only show highlights of victories. The only way citizens of the country will be able to watch the World Cup is if North Korea wins the tournament.
Essentially there is basically no chance that the citizens of North Korea will be granted the opportunity to watch the team that is supposedly representing them compete on the world stage.
But perhaps what’s most troubling about North Korea’s participation in the World Cup is that there is no telling how the Supreme Leader will deal with the team if they are unsuccessful.
There is no free press in North Korea that can monitor the actions of its government, and this can have dire consequences.
Consider another dictatorship whose athletes were unsuccessful in international competition: Iraq.
Uday Hussein, Saddam Hussein’s son, served as the President of the National Olympic Committee, and following his demise, stories emerged about his common practice of torturing and murdering Iraqi athletes who failed to win.
This isn’t to say that North Korea engages in similar practices, but because there is absolutely no way to monitor the actions of the government, if such atrocities were to be taking place, FIFA would have no way of knowing.
A scare already occurred during North Korea’s first match when four North Korean players were missing from the roster and the stadium.
There was wide-speculation about the whereabouts of the players until they turned up the next day at practice.
Rather than reprimanding North Korea for this bizarre occurrence, FIFA has taken a page out of the North Korean playbook and restricted the questions that North Korean players can be asked by reporters. This practice is counter to FIFA’s open media policy with the other 31 countries involved in the World Cup.
"We are here to talk about football not politics.” said a FIFA spokesman in defense.
There will hopefully be a time in the not too distant future when North Korea — the actual North Korea — can compete in the World Cup. But right now the team that is taking the field is nothing more than a farce being put forth by an oppressive dictator.
By allowing the team to compete and defending their practices of censorship, FIFA is not helping North Korea, but rather just legitimizing Kim Jong-il’s tyrannical regime.
Politics has no place at the World Cup, and that is exactly why North Korea should not be competing.