I’m not a fan of soccer. I understand that large chunks of the world love the game, but growing up in Tennessee and Kentucky, it isn’t part of my cultural DNA the way baseball, football, and basketball are — and I even came to basketball late, having done my M.A. at a traditional power in the sport, and learning to love it there. So the World Cup is basically background noise to me. If you like it, great — that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.
But in the Toronto Star this morning, a World Cup article got my attention. North Korea has a team in the tournament, and like most activities in the Most Miserable Place on Earth, the team and its staff is cloaked in secrecy and paranoia. Therefore, it was a coup, however accidental, when the Star‘s reporter was cut by razor wire around the stadium where the North Korean team was supposed to hold an open practice and press conference. (Unsurprisingly, the press conference was canceled.) Because of his scalp wound, he found himself being tended to in the North Korean locker room, and was seen briefly by the team’s doctor. In the process, he met a player:
The player sensed someone behind him. He turned. His eyes widened. He jerked his head toward the ground, as if the sight of me was painful. He tucked his chin into his chest and stared steadily at his shoes.[…]
The player moved to the other side of the small room, sat down and stared intently at the wall. He looked like most of the North Korean players — remarkably fit, a crew cut.
At first, we sat in silence. A very long silence.
“Hello,” I ventured.
Ri turned uncertainly, torn.
“Hello,” he finally said. He still wouldn’t look at me, but now he was facing my direction.
I pointed at my head. “Razor wire.” I mimed the coils and catching myself and cutting my head.
Ri winced appreciatively.
“You. Brazil,” I said, and gave him a thumbs up.
Another uncertain smile.
I mimed running hard. The North Koreans had lost their early match to Brazil, but ran like demons the whole time. I gave him another thumbs up.
“Very good,” I said.
Ri shook his head.
“No. No,” he said, and gave me an ‘aw shucks’ wave. “No good.”
It occurred to me that I was having the first-ever sit-down interview with a North Korean footballer inside a North Korean dressing room.
Earlier, the reporter mentioned a rumor that some of the North Koreans had defected — a rumor that proved unfounded. Remember, we’re talking about a country whose people are eating grass to avoid starvation, a prison nation with a tyrant lost in megalomania. Why wouldn’t these athletes try to escape?
They’re under guard, of course — but it goes much farther than that. A few days earlier, I had read a post at NRO‘s Corner:
[A] former high-ranking official named Hwang Jang-yop defected. Hwang was the chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly (North Korea’s rubber stamp parliament) and a prominent philosopher of the Juche Idea, the socialist ideology of North Korea.
When Hwang defected, over 3,000 of his family members, friends, and associates were arrested. Many of his distant relatives who faced arrest had no idea they were even related to Hwang.
Ku also brought up an incident where 100 North Korean cheerleaders traveled to South Korea for a sporting event in 2003. They were forced to sign a contract forbidding them from discussing anything they saw or heard in South Korea. Upon returning, they were sent to reeducation camp, and ultimately 20 of them were sent to the gulag.
The North Korean regime is a cancer on the planet. Some years ago, sophisticates jeered when President Bush called the country’s government part of an “axis of evil.” But it isn’t a lack of sophistication to identify evil when you see it. The North Korean government survives by destroying the human spirit. It is evil.
We’re told that events like the World Cup and the Olympics bring the world together in a celebration of ideals — the best that we can be. But at the same time, we are sometimes reminded of the worst there can be as well. We rejoice when we see hands raised in celebration — but we should never forget the head bowed in fear. A world that allows that bowed head is, in an important way, defeated. But with courage, the struggle can continue.