World Cup and the Koreas

24 Jun

So yes, the World Cup fever is high everywhere, and even a non-sports fan like myself has become hyped up about this global event. I am a shameless fan of South Korean football team, especially when it comes down to WC, you see. I was there in front of the Seoul City Hall jumping up and down with millions of other people in the pouring rain in 2002. I am possibly the least patriotic person that you’d see, if you’ve had some conversations with me ever (and trust me, it’s out of love!), but in terms of football, I am the biggest patriot alongside with my parents who have never lived abroad before :).

So the running jokes/rumors are that 1. I’m not Korean (well this is almost partially true), 2. I have 3 teams to cheer for in this World Cup which are: South Korea, US and North Korea- At least one of them has got to do well, right? Haha, yeah, funny, I know. But the strange thing about me is that I was still cheering hard-core for both of my Koreas, not so much the US. Yes, I do admit that before the whole bonanza of WC got started, I used to joke around with my friends about how North Korean players would suffer big time if they don’t win (the usual style, like they’ll be sent to the labor camp, etc). As I think about it now, I do regret it, especially after seeing the big loss of the North Korean team that we all had witnessed against Portugal. Sometimes, I’m in a 14 year old boy mood when it comes down to making bad jokes.

For every North Korea game, I secretly wished that they’ll kick the other teams’ butts, so that they know that this mysterious country that doesn’t actually get acknowledged as a country by several countries in the world, including South Korea and Japan, can show “something” to the world. I wanted them to show the world that this country which often gets ridiculed simply because of its (not-so-)”dear” leader and the Party’s more than unique political philosophy (like, buying another Ferrari for our dear leader will do our country good while the entire population has next to nothing to eat) will show the world that they can do something other than being a pariah.

My now not-so-secret wish perhaps came from my Koreanness. I am an 80s child who was educated in the anti-Communist, red-paranoid South Korean public education system of the 90s. But at the same time, we were continuously reminded of the fact that North and South Koreas are in fact just one Korea, one people who must eventually get together. I think I was already an idealistic kid even at young age, and this strange patriotic education (“you should love and hate North Korea”) left a strong impression in my development. Fair enough. Then I left the country around the turn of the century (ha, it sounds so grand!), and South Korea has changed a lot.  I’ve seen different presidents coming and going, some more liberal and (therefore) pro-NK (previous 2 pres) and some not so (the current one). Samsung and LG became global brands (although not many people know they are Korean, actually). Limited numbers of travels and trades became available between the South and the North (South Korean investment in North Korea for more exports and job creation while South Korean companies get tax benefits and take advantage of cheap labor and capital).  The direction of “unification education” has become not so much about anti-Communism, but more about how we should bring peace in the North-South Korea relations. To me, it seems more human, although a lot of people may criticize it saying that the lefty (=Marxist=dangerous: Korea is a very conservative country) politicians has screwed up everything, including spoiling “North Korea” by giving them only carrots but not sticks. I mean, who are we really talking about when we say “North Korea?” The leader? The people? The party members? The ideology or the idea of NK? I get confused.

But really, why is that any of my business anyways, you may ask? To me, who became a stranger by choice, watching the meaning of “being-Korean” changing was unsettling while all these changes have happened. I mean what did I expect? While I was changing, the country was changing, too. While I was becoming more “non-Korean,” the Korea I knew was becoming something different as well. And perhaps this is just like how NK and SK have become to be such different entities as well.

And going back to football now… So the individual who actually inspired me to make this posting is the football player of the North Korean national team, Jong Tae-se (정대세). Recently, I’ve read many articles about him, not simply because he is the possibly the best player in the team nicknamed “People’s (or North Korean) Rooney,” but because of his unique background of becoming the representative of North Korea, rather than South Korea as his passport says.

Are you confused yet :)? I’ll explain, based on this Korean article (sorry that there is no English article that is written this well- I’ll try to summarize as much as I can) that I read this evening. It is an interview of a documentary movie maker, who produced a doc film about Chosun Schools and the students, observing their identity developments (both school and the kids; I will try to get the film if I can). So Jong is actually a third-generation Korean born in Japan. His grandparents were forced to immigrate during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and when the war was over, they could not move back, and Japan would refuse to give them Japanese citizenship (even until now). Then the Korean War happened, and now these “Chosun (Korea’s old name during the monarchy)” people had to choose either one of the Koreas for their citizenship (mere paperwork, but of course it signifies way more than that). Jong’s father’s family has chosen the South Korean one (although his father does not support either one of them politically, according to some articles) and mother’s family, North. As North Korea is not considered an official country, she is a person of no nationality. Following the father’s citizenship, Tae-se, along with his brother (Jong Yi-se, also a football player playing for a K-League team), has South Korean citizenship. He went to one of 70 or so “Chosun Schools.” They are often perceived as North Korean schools, as it is supported somewhat by Cho-Chongryon (Korean acronym for General Association of Korean Residents in Japan; many people believe that they are North Korea supporting Koreans in Japan although this is not necessarily true) and yes, somewhat by North Korea (at least it used to). The Schools were initially established by the first generation Koreans in Japan (around the 1945 Independence) with much sacrifice and struggles from the Korean community who wanted to maintain Korean tradition and identity- really, who “we” are. The Schools were censored by Japanese government very much, due to its connection to North Korea, perhaps. Unlike the popular belief, the school apparently has various “types” of Koreans, whether pro-NK or not so political. The type of education that the students get there is very patriotic, and the curriculum really wants to teach them who they are as Koreans in Japan (who have suffered much racism and antagonism over the period, socially, politically and policy-wise and therefore need to prove themselves to be worthy of respect from themselves, from Japanese people and others) and why they should become special individuals when they grow up.

Yes, you may think these schools are old-fashioned and backward. But it made me understand, at least partially, why Jong cried so much as he was paying respect to “his country” before the NK-Brazil game (This NYT article shows the picture of him crying on the left, not to mention the article itself is pretty decent). It was the mixed feelings of an individual who has had to make his own identity in a very confusing, difficult way. He was born in Japan, but not granted the citizenship. He was born Korean, granted South Korean citizenship, but he never grew up there (while many South Koreans probably wouldn’t consider them as part of “us”). He grew up with a “South Korean” father and “North Korean” mother who do not necessarily identify themselves with either (perhaps his mother closer to Cho-Chongryon, the Korean article says). He had to pull all the strings (his family connections to FIFA) and more so that he can play for the North Korean team to do his “patriotic” duty as a Korean (neither South or North, but the entity that he yearned to be a part of and to work for) as he was educated in his Chosun School But he is also crazy about Wonder Girls (the South Korean pop sensation singing “Nobody”) and other SK popular culture. It seemed to me that it was a moment of all these things coming together for him. I mean, being everything is a better way of saying being nothing, and being everywhere means belonging nowhere. Being a Korean person who can play so many different roles -as Japanese, North Korean, South Korean or American- may not as well be a “real” Korean but a hybrid nomad who still wants to do something for his/her origin.

All in all, I feel for Mr. Jong and North Korea. Yes, the country lost to Portugal 0-7, but so what? Simply by getting this far, making the final 32 countries in WC (come on, India, Indonesia and China, what have you done with so many better-fed people :p?), North Korea, in a way, was able to be a legitimate participant of this global festival that every single country and person in the world has the right to enjoy, whether they are filthy rich or dirt poor. There’s still another game to go against Cote D’Ivoire, and I only hope to see another nice, gentleman-like play that the NK players have shown so far throughout this year’s World Cup. I still cheer for my “North Korean Rooney” and the rest of the team, because I’m Korean, too.

Tomorrow (June 25th) is the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. Mid-20th century is the most tragic and fascinating part of Korean and world history to me. My friend Fabi sent me a link to photos on They are scathing visual memories of human stupidity, and I highly recommend it. World Cup or no World Cup, such history has influenced who we have become.


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