North Korean Soccer Team Punished for World Cup Failure

North Korea's players line up before their first World Cup game against Brazil on June 15. Stuart Franklin / Getty Images

In June, the North Korean soccer team dropped ignominiously out of the World Cup without a point after conceding 12 goals in three games. Since the players returned home, they have been publicly shamed, according to reports. The manager has been forced to become a construction worker, and there are fears for his safety.

North Korea is one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. The soccer team's first game was not televised in the country, for fear of embarrassment. But when the team put up a remarkably good show against Brazil, narrowly losing 2-1, hopes were raised and the second game against Portugal was shown. The team lost 7-0. And then lost again, 3-0, in their last game against the Ivory Coast.

According to reports from Radio Free Asia and the South Korean media, earlier this month the team and manager were forced onto a stage at the People's Palace of Culture in front of 400 government officials, students, and journalists. According to the Guardian, the athletes were subjected to a "six-hour barrage of criticism" for their poor performances that was led by a TV commentator and sports minister Pak Myong-chol. The only players who missed out on the humiliation were Jung Tae-se and An Yong-hak, who are based in Japan.

The players were then asked to step up in turn and publicly criticize manager Kim Jong-hun, who had apparently been singled out for punishment. He has been forced into a construction job because, it is thought, his team's failure is seen as a personal betrayal of Kim Jong-un, the son of current leader Kim Jong-il. The Guardian reports that plans were in place, in the case of a good performance at the tournament, to credit the team's success to the heir apparent to help ease the transition of power. Instead, there are reportedly fears for the manager's safety.

Still, a South Korean intelligence source told the newspaper Chosun Ilbo that the team had probably escaped with a light punishment. In the past, he said, athletes and coaches who displeased the regime were sent to prison camps: "Considering the high hopes North Koreans had for the World Cup, the regime could have done worse things to the team than just reprimand them for their ideological shortcomings."