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Subtle Signals from North Korea

July 30, 2010

Here’s a rather remarkable story, courtesy of Eurosport

North Korean flops shamed in public

North Korea’s football squad have been subjected to a public humiliation in the wake of their World Cup failure.  The team lost all three games in South Africa, where they were making their first World Cup finals appearance since 1966. 

They took the stage at the People’s Palace of Culture in the capital Pyongyang while 400 students subjected them to a six-hour reprimand.  Reports claim coach Kim Jong-Hun was made to work on a building site and expelled from the Workers’ Party of Korea.  He was blamed for “betraying the trust of Kim Jong-Un”, one of dictator Kim Jong-Il’s sons, after the country went into the tournament with high hopes of qualifying from the so-called ‘Group of Death’.

The criticism was led by Ri Dong-Kyu, a commentator for state TV, which made the 7-0 drubbing at the hands of Portugal its first ever live sports broadcast.  The decision to show the game live came in the wake of an encouraging 2-1 defeat to Brazil. North Korea lost their final game 3-0 to Ivory Coast.

Radio Free Asia claimed the dressing-down took place on July 2, but news only leaked out of the famously secretive country this week.  Japanese-born pair Jong Tae-Se and An Yong-Hak escaped censure, flying straight to Japan from South Korea.

A source from South Korea’s intelligence community told the Chosun Ilbo newspaper: “In the past, North Korean athletes and coaches who performed badly 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.”

Apparently this took place on July 2, when I was actually in North Korea (I wasn’t in Pyongyang, though).  Needless to say, the topic of their national team’s dismal performance in the World Cup was not a welcome topic of conversation with our official minders.  I particularly like the part in the article about the two Japanese-born Koreans being smart enough to fly back home to Japan directly.  Good call.

But as strange as it may seem, this odd story is not without serious import.  Note that the report says the team “betrayed the trust of Kim Jong-Un” — the son of current (and ailing) leader Kim Jong-Il, who is being set up to succeed him.  That’s something you never would have heard before.  Until very recently, Kim Jong-Il’s sons were never mentioned publicly, in fact North Koreans were never even told, in any official propaganda, that he even had any offspring at all.  The fact that this public “shaming” was done in the son’s name, not the father’s, is actually a very significant political message meant to solidify the anticipated succession, and signal that a changing of the guard is underway.

The other hint that a passing of the torch is imminent is a huge bronze statue of Kim Jong-Il that was recently unveiled.  Until now, Kim Jong-Il has not allowed any public statues of himself, only of his own father Kim Il-Sung (who founded the North Korean regime, and died in 1994).  During both of my visits to the DPRK, I only saw one statue of Kim Jong-Il, in the huge underground vault devoted to displaying all the diplomatic gifts he has received (there’s another, even larger vault dedicated to his father’s gifts).  Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura, an expert on North Korean politics at Tokyo’s Waseda University, told the Telegraph that “this statue means that Kim Jong-Il is passing into history and legend in North Korea and I’m more convinced than ever that his successor will be announced soon.”

The official naming of Kim Jong-Un as the heir apparent is expected to take place at a big party meeting in September.  Jong-Un, who reportedly attended school in Switzerland under an assumed name, is only 27 or 28 years old, and if his father were to die, would become the world’s youngest head of state.

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