The Real Football and North Korea

It is always strange for me to see North Koreans compete at high-profile events like the World Cup. It seems out of place: the most brutal dictatorship on earth taking part in fun and games. Something doesn’t seem right about it, like stories about children raised by wolves. They often seem to get there, though, be it the Olympics or the World Cup.

When I think of North Korea, I don’t normally think of athletic, muscle-clad, well-fed men who play games as their full time jobs. But there they were: fighting Brazil yesterday with fervor. In fact, Jong Tae Se and his teammates stole my heart a little as they faced Goliath.

During the game, the announcers offered a few jokes about the country’s leader Kim Jong Il, and some laughs at his expense. The commentators giggled about the rumors that the handful of North Korean fans in South Africa are in fact hired Chinese actors. (The country is so oppressed that their people aren’t allowed to leave! Ha! That’s hilarious.) We seem to have forgotten what it means to get mad at genocidal maniacs.

But mostly the men announcing the game just talked about the mystery surrounding the country, and admitted that we don’t really know very much about North Korea.

To be clear, we do know some things. Human rights groups have been smuggling people and aid into North Korea for years. We know about the famines that have left children’s bodies piled in the streets, and we have not only heard about their massive concentration camp system: we can see the camps in overhead images of the country.

Voice of the Martyrs (or VOM, a Christian non-profit that combats religious persecution and aids victims) published a booklet in 2008 called “Restricted Nations: North Korea.”

In it, they cite a letter from a man who was imprisoned in North Korea’s vast system of camps. He describes the camps as a “living hell” where guards beat the prisoners until they become mentally unstable. One prisoner who lost his daily rations – a few spoonfuls of rice – got so hungry that he ate dirty rags used on the toilets.

According to eyewitnesses and survivors, the guards torture grandmothers and children. They rape women and exterminate men. Half of the prisoners in the interrogation centers are said to die after 10 months, and families of prisoners are always at risk as well.

Families who aren’t imprisoned live in extreme poverty and depend on aid. They often eat what they can find: acorns, grass, nothing. They worship their dictator, but die for lack of basic sustenance.

We don’t have much to back up these claims of relief workers and survivors. No video, few images. So yes, in that sense we don’t “know” much.

You may wonder, why the sad news? Don’t we get enough of that every day? What in the world can people do about this besides get all worked up?

Not much. We can support the efforts of groups like LiNK: Liberty in North Korea. And we can pray.

But it needs to be said, because yesterday, when North Korea fought so well against Brazil, the country’s sad situation seemed to be a laughing matter to some people. It is not.

Did you catch the North Korea/Brazil game? Did anything stand out to you about the North Korean team or the commentary?

Have you heard much about some of the suffering of the North Korean people? Where did you first hear about it?

For many more resources and info, check out the “Learn” tab at LiNK’s website.

5 Responses to “The Real Football and North Korea”
  1. Joan says:

    I first heard about the problems in Korea through Voice of The Martyrs many years ago. Their write ups of individual prisoners and persecuted families bring home to you what is happening in our present time in a different part of the world to Christians and non-Christians. VOM is a great way to keep your head and heart in touch with reality outside the U.S. It is painful to read sometimes, but these are the “Blessed are the persecuted” that Jesus told us about. LINK places you right there. You can go to 9 Lives and get a good feel for the types of persecution and punishment.

    You know, while it is a very dark subject (and we all like light and happy subjects) persecution is real, and educated people cannot ignore its existence and the need for prayer for these people. I count it a privilege to pray for them.

  2. Evan says:

    I did get to catch the game, and North Korea (though if you call it that they will tell you it doesn’t exist) was surprisingly good, mostly because they were so scrappy. They didn’t have the skill or precision of Brazil, but they attacked every ball like their life depended on it (though we hope that’s not true, who knows). In the end, I was very surprised with the result.

  3. Darrell says:

    I was in South Korea in the early 70’s for a few weeks. It was a very militarized country with a lot of road blocks and checks (stop and search stations). They were fine, wonderful people in the South but the Country had not recovered by then from the war. My heart was moved then by their plight.
    The war in the early 50’s of which my brother is a Marine veteran, left South Korea in a perpetual state of militarized fear of the North. Why did we do that? Why did the UN do that? Six years before the war we had 12 million men under arms and we were the only nation with nuclear weapons having proven that we were willing to use them. The rest of the world was devastated and in ruins. Yet six years later we could not permanently drive China’s influence and troops from that peninsula. How can that be?

    Well I don’t know how, nor do I understand it, but one would think that after almost 3 years of war, 33,000 troops there for 60 years, and hundreds of billions in weapons and training, South Korea could defend itself from the North but no, apparently not.

    Those North Koreans must be some really great warriors. We defeated Nazi Germany, Japan, and Italy combined in less than 4 years so the North Koreans must be some pretty tough people, those that are not in camps anyway.

  4. jamiehchong says:

    I’m watching the DPRK play Portugal right now and it does kind of surprise me that the NK team would be allowed to leave the country and to see the rest of the world. Besides what I know about the country from my own family history and culture, I had to do some extensive research on it this past semester for a class at school. Joanna, you’re quite right–no one outside of the NK government knows what’s going on, and it disheartens me that sometimes people in the free world don’t take an interest in the country.

    I’m so thankful to VOM for doing what they do in regard to persecution in North Korea, as well as the secular organizations like LiNK and the NK Freedom Coalition for their work.

    My pastor from my church at home lived in NK before the war, and tries to go at least once yearly into North Korea. As far as we can tell, those stories are real. But NK was once a very Christian country, and I have heard many pray for a revival there. Anything is possible with God! So let’s definitely not forget to pray for them.

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