North Korea’s star at the World Cup


He is the new public face of North Korea:

Jong Tae-se is a 26-year-old publicity hound with his own blog, where he strikes a sultry bare-chested pose. He has appeared in television commercials. He drives a silver Hummer and likes to dress like hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. When he goes on the road, he travels with a laptop, iPod and sometimes a Nintendo DS and a Sony PlayStation Portable.

Jong is the star striker of North Korea’s 2010 World Cup team. That makes him at this particular moment the most recognizable living North Korean, with the possible exception of the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il.

This is the first time North Korea has qualified for the World Cup since 1966. Although the country is as much a pariah as ever, having been implicated in the recent torpedo attack on a South Korean warship that killed 46 people, its novelty value keeps it in the headlines coming out of South Africa. At the bottom of the 32 teams in competition, North Korea is pitted against top-ranked Brazil in its first match, on Tuesday, a classic minnow-against-the-whale competition that should be curiosity enough to attract a strong following.

“People don’t know about North Korea. We want to change North Korea’s image,” Jong told reporters last week outside the Makhulong Stadium in Tembisa, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

If Jong sounds like a most improbable North Korean, it might be because he was born and grew up in a community of 600,000 Koreans who live in Japan. Most of them are descendents of laborers who came over during Japan’s occupation of the Korean peninsula. He was educated in pro-Pyongyang schools run by the General Assn. of Korean Residents in Japan.

As a child, Jong obsessively watched videos of one of the most famous World Cup upsets of all time: a 1966 match in which North Korea beat Italy to advance to the quarterfinals.

North Korea started wooing him during his sophomore year at Tokyo-based Korea University. But the effort was complicated by the fact that Jong had been registered by his father as a South Korean. (Like most Korean residents of Japan, he didn’t have Japanese citizenship.) The South Korean government would not let him give up his citizenship because it doesn’t recognize North Korea.

“I am not South Korean!” Jong protested to a South Korean sports magazine in the midst of a protracted battle to renounce his citizenship. He qualified for the North Korean team anyway, since soccer federation rules allow dual nationality, but Jong is dogged by criticism that he is not North Korean enough. He has never lived in the country except for short stretches training with the team.

“It is hard to say what nationality he is,” said Masafumi Mori, author of a recently published Japanese-language biography. “Jong is like this figure, standing right on top of where the Earth’s crusts of the three countries of North Korea, South Korea, Japan meet.”

Despite his attempt to renounce his citizenship, Jong’s popularity extends to both sides of the border. South Korea’s team is in the World Cup too, but when it comes to soccer, the estranged Koreans usually cheer each other on. Jong appeared last year in a television commercial for the South Korean energy drink Bacchus with Park Ji-sung, captain of South Korea’s World Cup team. He also writes a column for a South Korean Web portal.

“I think it is too bad we didn’t notice him when he was in high school or college. Maybe we would have picked him instead for the South Korean team,” said Do Young-in, a reporter covering the World Cup for Sports Seoul.

For the North Koreans, using players raised in Japan has its advantages. Their team is handicapped by the country’s poverty and isolation. Although top athletes have adequate food and training facilities, they have limited opportunity to play outsiders — or even to watch matches, since foreign television broadcasts are banned in North Korea.

“It was a very clever move for them to bring in people who live abroad and have experience playing in more competitive leagues,” said Simon Cockerell, a Briton living in Beijing who has organized a North Korean soccer fan club.

Another player raised in Japan is midfielder Ahn Yong-hak. The team’s Hong Yong-jo also has an international reputation, playing with the Russian premier league team FC Rostov. But it is Jong, with an impish grin and a full crest of hair that gives him a cone-headed look (his nickname among North Korean fans is “Acornhead”), who has captured the public’s attention.

“He’s good-looking. He scores lots of goals. He knows how to deal with media,” Cockerell said.

Beyond the flamboyance is a serious athlete, say those who have worked with him.

After college, he became a professional player for the J-League’s Kawasaki Frontale. “We chose him because he had these powerful moves that were rare with Japanese players,” said his coach there, Tsutomu Takahata. “He has grown into a player who moves symbiotically with the others.”

“He’s the real thing,” said Lee Chang-gang, a professional player with Japan’s Fagiano Okayama team who played soccer with Jong in elementary school. He remembers him as a hotheaded kid who was sometimes taken out of a game for bad behavior. But Jong was sufficiently serious about the sport that he learned to control his temper, Lee said. “He aimed to be a professional soccer player from his elementary school days.”

The transition to playing with the North Korean national team was not easy for Jong. He had to learn how to care for and assemble his own equipment, how to do his own laundry and carry his own bags, according to his biographer.

Jong had spoken and written openly about his irritation at times with the lack of worldliness of his North Korean teammates.

In a blog posting May 24, Jong recalled a stop during a trip from Switzerland to Austria, when his teammates headed to the men’s room and then came rushing out in consternation. They had not expected a pay toilet.

“I laughed a little seeing this. Then they turned to me and said, ‘This is truly what capitalist society is like,’ ” Jong wrote.

He used to have a hard time with the way his teammates would handle his personal possessions, especially his cellphone. With time, he learned that he needed to allow them to use his Nintendo and PlayStation to build goodwill within the team. “It has taken a lot to accept their culture,” he told reporters in South Africa.

Fortunately for Jong, he probably will not have to do much adjusting to North Korean culture, as he showed no interest in settling down in Pyongyang. His goal during the World Cup, Jong has said repeatedly, is to score once in each game, just once.

And then to sign on to play in England.

Nagano is a special correspondent in Tokyo.