Lessons Of Hard Labour: Football In North Korea

When you think of North Korea what usually comes to mind is a ruthless regime led by a power-hungry dictator and not a country that would dare participate in something as democratic, unifying and ubiquitous as football.

North Korea has always been a country that prides itself on being isolationist and claims to be 100% racially pure. It seems having a domestic league, let alone a national team would be impossible in a country where people are sent to labour camps for trying to leave.

It doesn’t take an expert to see that football is a global game and most players earn their wage in foreign leagues. Things are different in North Korea. The one-party state has three leagues, two professional (DPR Korea League 1,2) founded in 2010 and one amateur (DPR Korea League 3). All three of these leagues play at different times of the year.

The timings of the leagues and North Korea’s unwillingness to follow world transfer regulations due to its political regime mean that all North Korean clubs are ineligible to play in any Asian Club Competitions.

Naturally, when you’re not allowed to play someone’s game you come up with your own and North Korea did this in the form of the DPR Korean Cup, a Korean FA Cup if you like.

There are, however, some exceptions being made. North Korean defender Ri Yong-Chol has entered contract talks with the pinnacle of English football that is Wigan Athletic Football Club. These contract talks began in earlier this month and the defender has been given the green light to swap North Korea for Wigan.

The domestic league is always going to have issues when it comes to growth and global exposure mainly revolving around the fact that citizens aren’t allowed to leave the country (unless you’re going to Wigan).

Their national team, currently sandwiched between Finland and Georgia at 110th in FIFA’s world rankings has had some experience in major tournaments. DPR Korea qualified for the World Cup in both 1966 and 2010 reaching the quarter-final and group stage respectively.

Neither ended too well for them as after they beat Italy 1-0 in Middlesbrough they hit up Teesside for a few drinks in celebration. Word of this got to the ‘Supreme Leader’ and upon arriving back in North Korea after being knocked out by Portugal they were sent to labour camps as punishment for being too bourgeois.

In 2010 after only losing 2-1 to Brazil, Kim Jong-Il was optimistic going into their game against Portugal and decided to Broadcast it live to the nation. This went as badly as it could have possibly gone with the North Koreans getting pummelled 7-0. Off to the mines they went (allegedly).

Let’s not forget all the Chinese people paid to be North Korean fans for the day, one of the many problems of not letting people out of the country.

Despite its lack of recent success at World Cups only reaching the group stage in 2010 and failing to qualify for 2014 and 2018 it has been suggested by the South Korean president Moon Jae-in that North and South Korea could bid to co-host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

There is a whole number of reasons as to why this is such an awful idea, the biggest one being that they are technically still at war.

When the Korean War ended in 1953 an armistice was signed and North and South Korea were separated via a demilitarized zone but no peace treaty was ever signed.

The South Korean president suggests that if they were to host a World Cup together that it could help create peace, this, in theory, could work but that relies upon Kim Jong-un promising not to fire missiles at anyone who beats them.

North Korea is trying to boost its footballing image and presence on the world stage but the political regime and its isolationist way of life are acting as a major barrier. No one wants to play football if they are going to be sent to do hard labour when they lose. This is sad because football is such a global game and should be for everyone no matter where you come from. Does this mean we’ll never see a North Korean Messi? Maybe in Wigan.



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