With North Korea’s third World Cup defeat today, against Côte d’Ivoire, the team and its handful of supporters will pack up and return home. North Koreans are not allowed to leave their country, and an international soccer tournament—already a luxury for foreign visitors here—is an insane extravagance for people suffering from a raging famine. So who were these few North Koreans in South Africa watching their country’s soccer matches?
At the DPRK vs. Portugal match in Cape Town earlier this week, I sat among the 70 odd North Korean fans as a sole South Korean–born American. In the stadium filled to its capacity of 63,644 fans, hardly anyone else cheered for North Korea except for a few Europeans who flashed their souvenir DPRK flags as an attention-grabbing stunt for the cameras. Beneath the torrential downpour of the South African winter, North Korea—returning to the World Cup for the first time in 44 years ago—was shut out 7–0 by Portugal, the same nation that knocked it out last time.
Yet it was not the game that haunted me but the expressionless faces of those North Korean fans around me, all of them male. Clad in red jackets and hats, they appeared to be in their 40s and 50s (they wouldn’t tell me their exact age) with uniformly dark and haggard faces. Seated a few seats away from them were two younger men with healthier complexions who appeared to be their minders. They did not answer my questions, but this was how minders looked in my trips to North Korea, and they ordered the fans where to sit. Surrounded by overly exuberant, vuvuzela-blowing Portuguese fans adorned in bright green and yellow, this group appeared strangely out of place, perfunctorily waving miniature flags with the restraint of soldiers.
Although my source told me that the group consisted of migrant bronze workers who had arrived here from Namibia on a 24-hour-long bus ride, the three I spoke to during halftime claimed that they came from Pyongyang via Beijing. One of them said that his team will certainly proceed onto the next round with their “Great General,” Kim Jong-il, leading the way. Another insisted that if the two Koreas came here as one, no team in the world could beat them. Unification, he said, was the key, and we, the Koreans, must all hope for one. I tried to speak to them further, but they looked away.
Having visited Pyongyang several times in the past, I was aware that there was no real use talking to these men. They would not answer anything that deviated from their script involving the Great Leader and unification, nor would they return my gaze once their vetted remarks were made. In Cape Town—so far from Pyongyang—I hoped for a momentary slip where one of them would say something, anything, to help me fathom the bizarre world they come from. But as Portugal kept running up the score, those 70 North Korean fans became increasingly more solemn.
The unease I felt at that moment was difficult to name. Having lived in America for longer than I have in Seoul, I do not align myself with a particular national spirit. I was sad to see the aspirations of athletes so brutally crushed, but even more depressing was the knowledge that this brief parole for the players and fans (whether they were from Namibia or Pyongyang) would now end. And whatever is waiting for them back home is terrifying enough that they will utter not even a whisper about it.
One of the most repeated World Cup mottos is “a time to make friends,” but what if a country has become so foul in its isolation that its government has forgotten how to be a part of the world and its people are never allowed to interact with those outside, even the casual attendees of a soccer match? That, certainly, was the question these silent North Koreans provoked in South Africa this year.