By Nick Harris
14 June 2010
North Korea will have fewer fans at the 2010 World Cup than any other nation because ordinary citizens are forbidden to travel and because, according to Amnesty International, expats who gather in public places risk doing so in fear of their lives and in fear of reprisals against family members back home.
North Korea’s opening game tomorrow, against Brazil, will rightly be characterised as footballing giants against obscure minnows, and no doubt a lot of neutrals will lend their sympathy to the team from the secretive Asian nation.
They will need all the support they can get. A contingent of no more than 200 officials from the government of Kim Jong-il will sit in “North Korea” seats. They will be joined by a party of around 50 North Korea fans from the Korean community in Japan, but nobody from inside North Korea itself will be present apart from the officials.
Amnesty International is using the worldwide attention that will be trained on the Brazil-North Korea game to highlight the oppressive regime of Kim Jong-il, 68, who routinely shoots several holes-in-one per round of golf (according to state propaganda) and whose tactical advice was key to his nation qualifying (ditto).
Amnesty says the government is responsible for such severe food shortages that North Koreans continue to die of starvation. “In February 2010, starvation deaths were reported in South Pyongan Province. There were earlier reports of two people a day dying of hunger in South Hamkyong Province.”
The human rights group also says some North Korean citizens are subject to illegal detention, torture and imprisonment; and that the North Korean government conducts public executions by hanging or firing squad.
A briefing released by Amnesty today also reports: “In March 2010, a North Korean armaments factory worker by the family name Chong was reportedly executed by firing squad; he was accused of divulging the price of rice and other information on living conditions in North Korea to a North Korean border-crosser who had settled in South Korea years ago.”
As for the World Cup, expat North Koreans will be largely conspicuous by their absence. “North Koreans who have left their country of origin without permission are seen by the authorities to have ‘betrayed’ their country,” Amnesty research says. “They cannot seen in public as many fear that if identified, their family members who are still in North Korea could be punished.
“The North Korean authorities are known for their practice of ‘guilt-by-association’. The punishment could even include loss of jobs, which means loss of access to food from the public distribution system, and possible imprisonment.
“This policy has been so effectively used by NK authorities that North Korea has no known opposition political party within the country despite its long, persistent and devastating food crisis. This fear of punishment for their family members is another reason why North Koreans are not known to publicly gather [outside their country] to support the NK team.”
It is not known if or when any of North Korea’s games will be shown on television back home. One of the sanctions imposed by South Korea over the recent sinking of its warship by the north is likely to be the end of free, peninsula-wide football broadcasts.
North Korea did not do its own rights deals. If if cannot use the South Korea broadcast signals, it will rely instead on China. In any case, there are anecdotal suggestions that all signals will be blocked until the results are known, and if North Korea lose, matches will no be shown.
When the north lost to the south in April, the North Koreans accused their opponents of food poisoning.