North Korea flagOn September 2nd under the threat of a typhoon, Japan edged North Korea 1-0 to claim their first win in a crucial AFC World Cup qualifying round.

The Saitama stadium was packed, the match hard-fought throughout. Good chances had gone begging for both sides before Japan took the initiative in the final minutes and laid siege to the North Korean goal. Their constant pressure finally paid off and a header by defender Maya Yoshida secured all three points for the Blue Samurai. As his teammates raced over to him to celebrate, the North Korean players trudged solemnly back to the halfway line.

After the match, Japan coach Alberto Zaccheroni hailed the result: “A great victory, after suffering against a [North Korean] team that did their very best”.

But for all the drama of the late winner, in the weeks running up to the game there were severe doubts as to whether the North Korean team would even be allowed entry into Japan. After North Korea’s 2006 missile tests, the Japanese government had placed a ban on the immigration of North Korean nationals and it was only after Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto relented that the match could take place.

However, the tensions over North Korea’s nuclear policy were not the only barrier towards cordial relations between the two nations, and this latest clash re-emphasized issues which affect citizens of both Japan and North Korea.

Notably the North Korean national team has several Japanese-born players who continue to reside in the land of their birth yet identify themselves as North Korean. In Japan they’re part of a broader group of ethnic Koreans labeled as Zainichi, literally meaning “staying in Japan”, and the most recognizable of them is striker Jong Tae-Se.

Tae-Se gained notoriety during the 2010 World Cup for his energetic performances and his inability to contain his emotions each time the North Korean national anthem was played prior to kickoff. The iconic image of tears streaming down his face demonstrated his loyalty to his adopted nation, but it has also been seen as evidence of the supposed brain-washing that Tae-Se and other Zainichi undergo.

In an excellent documentary by Journeyman Pictures, the history of the Zainichi and their ties with North Korea are explored. Tae-Se also stars due to his prominence in the community and in his opening scenes he shrugs off the meaning behind his tears claiming: “I’ve always shown my emotions easily, I’m a cry-baby”.

He continues, speaking of the joy that came with representing the nation he identifies with and heaps glowing praise on Kim Jong-Il for leading the isolated nation on the “right path”.

However, the other Zainichi are much less pleased with the situation in North Korea and they do not enjoy the same civil and economic certainties that Tae-Se’s success has afforded him. Many Zainichi continue to send money to their North Korean relatives but otherwise have no correspondence with them. Some are not even sure if their family back home are still alive. The propaganda from North Korea is wearing thin and while some still send their children to schools apparently “sponsored by Kim Jong-Il”, previous doctrines of the leader are now removed from the classroom.

Most Zainichi remove themselves from the North Korean regime as much as they can. The dictatorship has ruined most of their lives and the worst deceit they faced came when 90,000 Zainichi eagerly returned to North Korea, literally promised to be “a heaven on earth”.

The sights that greeted them could not be more horrific – starving men, women and children with faces more appropriately described as skin stretched on skulls. Only around 200 were able escape but the North Korean government continues to track them, frequently arriving and taking family members away unannounced.

It would make sense for the Japanese government to defend their citizens but instead, the Zainichi face discrimination which has seen their communities left out of most state funding.

Japan condemns North Korea for kidnapping several Japanese citizens, but hypocritically they do not recognize that the Zainichi have faced similar mistreatment from their homeland.  Reluctantly, the Japanese government offers refuge but no true guardianship against the abominations of North Korea.

At the end of the previously mentioned documentary, a journalist exposes these facts about North Korea to Tae-Se while they are in the comfort of his Tokyo flat. Immediately Tae-Se appears more distressed.

When asked if he would like to meet with fellow Zainichi who have had difficult experiences he replies knowingly: “I don’t need to hear those stories… every person has a different interpretation and it might not have fitted that person but it might have fitted you.”

When further pressed whether he would consider permanent residence in North Korea, he pauses before answering honestly: “All my family and friends are in Japan, and I was born and raised in Japan.  I don’t think I want to go back because Japan is my homeland.”

In light of his frank comments Tae-Se’s tears during the World Cup take on a different meaning. Rather than being tears of unbridled joy at hearing North Korea’s national anthem being played proudly on the world stage, they could easily have been tears of sorrow for the pain endured by both native North Koreans and those abroad. Certainly the complex issue of having both native and Zainichi North Koreans in the side doesn’t go unnoticed by the players even if it is kept relatively quiet.

Another Zainichi player, An Yong Hak, spoke with the Asahi Shimbun (a Japanese daily) after his World Cup experience. He described the relationships between the two groups as being very close.

Firstly he dispelled the myth that North Korean players were frequently ostracized for poor performances saying: “Most of my teammates have remained the same over the years.”

He was saddened by the sensationalist coverage from foreign reporters during the World Cup who in his words: “described our team as being ‘shrouded in mystery’, but in reality, we were just a bunch of ordinary young guys.”

Finally he hoped that the heterogeneous mixture of players and experiences in the side meant that “people of different nations can still come together as one in our hearts.”

Certainly that belief was tested when North Korea met Japan in the Saitama Stadium. The small stand devoted to the away support was entirely full and many Zainichi had the rare opportunity to express their pride for North Korea.

Even within the authoritarian confines of North Korea, football is rallying a new spirit among the people. FIFA does its best to remove politics from the sport but even the North Korean government appears oddly powerless in controlling its populace when it comes to football.

In 2005, violence erupted in Pyongang as North Korea lost 2-0 to Iran and finished bottom of their World Cup Qualifying group.  Bottles, stones and chairs were thrown on to the pitch, and the Iranian team was prevented from loading the team bus.

At the time, a North Korean defector and former football official warned that: “I have never seen anything like this myself.  The people responsible are likely to be tracked down and severely punished.”

While that may have been one of the more rudimentary expressions of dissent against the regime, it shows the potential for more positive change when the masses are allowed to unite and express themselves.

By Gaurav Dhar

This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona