North Korea's Uncomfortable Moment in the Spotlight

North Korean fans, reported to actually be actors from China, watch the closed country's team in its World Cup match against Brazil on June 16. Ian Walton/Getty Images

At the U.N., where it must answer for the sinking of a South Korean warship, and at the World Cup, where rumors of odd behavior are rife, North Korea has been dragged uncomfortably into the spotlight.

North Korea is perhaps the most oppressive and closed state in the world. Dictator Kim Jong-il's subjects suffer food shortages and face arbitrary imprisonment and torture in gulags where unwanted infants are buried alive [PDF]. Kim tells them that they live in a paradise while the rest of the world is filled with devils.

So it is particularly striking when representatives of the North meet the free world. On March 26 the South Korean warship Cheonan exploded, killing 46. An international investigation, which found a fragment of a North Korean torpedo, concluded that Pyongyang was behind the attack.

Yesterday, Sin Son-ho, the North Korean ambassador to the U.N., was forced to hold a news conference, at which he threatened violence, to try to prevent a Security Council resolution condemning his country. "If the Security Council releases any documents against us condemning or questioning us, then myself, as diplomat, I can do nothing," The New York Times report him saying, "but the follow-up measures will be carried out by our military forces."

Inside North Korea. See the photo gallery. Ilkka Uimonen

Sin warned that "our people and Army will smash our aggressors," that the investigation was "a complete fabrication from A to Z," and the finding of the torpedo fragment was something out of "Aesop's fables," as the ship probably ran aground or exploded because it was faulty. Many of the countries behind the possible Security Council resolution, he said, including Japan and the U.S., had ulterior motives.

Sin refused to discuss the possibility of Kim Jong-un, dictator Kim Jong-il's son, succeeding his father; North Korea's nuclear ambitions; and the prospects for the World Cup team.

The Hermit Kingdom's soccer team is facing uncomfortable questions as well. At a press conference before the World Cup, according to The Guardian, manager Kim Jong-hun and "media officer" Kim Myung-chul responded with icy silence to a question about whether the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, would pick the team himself.

The manager demanded that his country be referred to by its full title—the double-speak Democratic People's Republic of Korea—and Japan-born striker Jong Tae-se, a capitalist who even drives a Hummer, has blogged about his team's confusion at pay public toilets while on tour in Europe.

Clearly, significant numbers of North Koreans could not be allowed to attend the World Cup without revealing their dictator's lies about the rest of the planet. So, reports Reuters, Chinese people were recruited to cheer for the team as it lost to Brazil 2–1. The Daily Telegraph put the number of these proxies at about 1,000.

And those are just the facts. Fans and pundits, fascinated by the mechanics of a ruthlessly closed and oppressive state taking part in one of the world's biggest sporting events, in front of billions, have eagerly propagated a rumor that the manager has a special cell phone, not visible to the naked eye, through which Kim Jong-il gives him tactical advice. Kim is said to have developed this invisible phone himself.