During the fall break holiday, I completed Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. Demick. She is the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief. Nothing to Envy focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors over 15 years. They are all from the city of Chongin, an industrial port city near the border with Russia and China. She goes into detail about their lives before they left, their escape and how they got on in South Korea.
I am fascinated with North Korea’s totalitarian regime. I can’t believe that a family can maintain control over an entire country in this century. Nadia and I watched a documentary in 2001 about a North Korean family living in the rural north, who had to send their 5-year old child away to the capital because they couldn’t feed him. It broke my heart then, before I had kids, and seeing it today I would have a stronger reaction.
When I hear of government repression, I always think about the men that are actually doing the repression. Why do they agree to round up ordinary citizens, interrogate them, hold them prisoner in work camps, etc? And to do so just because of one man (Kim Il-Sung) and his descendants? I understand human nature and resistance to change and their limited experience and perspective, and I marvel at the ability of humans to adapt to circumstances so that almost anything can be regarded as normal. The book made me angry at the North Korean government. The people featured in the book understood the lies, and fought against them, but they were the minority.
It would be nice for the US and other rich nations to help them, but with nuclear capability and a 1-million strong armed force, it would be crazy to interfere too much. Everyone sees eventually the influences of the outside world breaking down the government and them losing control and I predict that it will happen in my lifetime. It will be extremely tough on South Korea, but with economic help from neighbors China, Japan, Russia, and the west, I think they will eventually work it out. Not as fast as Germany because of how low North Koreans are, but they will get there.
I highly recommend the book. I have been reading a lot about Japan and the region and hope to get to both South and North Korea in my time here. Demick also wrote a book about life in one street in Sarajevo during the siege that I would also like to read.
It was certainly a different experience at the stadium last night as we watched North Korea defeat Bahrain 1-0 in an international friendly (exhibition) game in the National Stadium here in Riffa, Bahrain. The first strange thing about game was admission was free. They don’t have any tickets and do not charge spectators to enter. There were security guards at all the gates and inside the stadium, but a very relaxed atmosphere. The 10,000 seat capacity stadium was probably about 1/4 full. We had a difficult time finding four consecutive seats that were not broken. It is strange that the kingdom has such good infrastructure with roads, lights, etc, and such a poor stadium. The lights were good and the field in decent shape, but the seats, bathrooms, running track, etc. all need to be renovated. I only saw two women in the crowd, one British woman and one local in the black robes. Many fans were chewing sunflower seeds. The only items for sale were pumpkin, sunflower and other types of seeds, soda pop, and “sloppy joes” made with liver.
The game was quite boring with Bahrain trying to attack but with a lot of backwards passing and North Korea mostly playing a defensive, counter-attacking style. North Korea got the lone goal 14 minutes into the second half with a nice crossing pass to a cutting striker. The Korean goalkeeper made some nice stops, but he was annoyingly slow in retrieving the ball and kicking balls from the goal. I don’t see Bahrain getting out of their group and North Korea definitely has to step up their game to be successful in next week’s Asian Cup.
Below is the preview I wrote yesterday prior to going to the game.
Tonight I’m taking the boys to the North Korea versus Bahrain international friendly soccer game.
Both teams are getting ready for next week’s Asian Cup in neighbor Qatar. The cup features 16 teams from Asia with Australia, Japan, and South Korea as favorites. Bahrain will be grouped with Australia, India, and South Korea. North Korea will be matched up with UAE, Iraq, and Iran. It would be funny to substitute Cuba for UAE and add Venezuela to get an “axis of evil” tourney going.
Bahrain has never qualified for the World Cup. The past two cup qualifying competitions however, they lost in the final playoff leg, losing to New Zealand last year and to Trinidad & Tobago in 2006. They don’t have any players I recognize, most play in the Persian Gulf region. One guy plays on a first division Swiss team and another for a first division Turkish team.
North Korea is a more interesting team. They were in last summer’s World Cup, but lost three straight games, including a 0-7 drubbing by Portugal. The regime punished the coach by firing him and putting him on a construction job. In another article by Newsweek reporter Eve Fairbanks, she argues that the team should be banned from international competitions and discusses their star player, Jong Tae-se, a German second division player:
People who dismiss boycotts say they punish ordinary people rather than those in power, and furthermore, that cultural exchanges like orchestra tours and sports matches help dispel the sense of otherness that hangs over pariah peoples, allowing us to recognize our common humanity. Permit me to suggest that, in the case of North Korea and the World Cup, this is idiocy. Consider North Korea’s star player, the striker Jong Tae-se. A vocal and charismatic 20-something nicknamed “The People’s Wayne Rooney,” Jong has asserted that North Korea’s participation in the World Cup will do a great deal to demystify the country, win it respect and understanding abroad, and stoke pride at home. Indeed, Jong himself leads a totally normal and enjoyable-sounding life, by professional-athlete standards. He rolls in a silver Hummer, loves to snowboard, travels with an iPod and a Nintendo, and aspires to bed one of the Wondergirls—the Spice Girls of Seoul. He has also never lived in North Korea. He was born in Japan and continues to reside there, in the better-off Korean diaspora. He was the one who told the newspapers about his North Korean teammates’ quaint penchant for rock-paper-scissors. If Jong doesn’t represent the existence of Joe Ebrahim’s “dual life” in terms of North Korean society—in which a few nation-glorifying stars are allowed to pursue a capitalist lifestyle while most forage for food and dream about basic rights—I don’t know what does.
North Korea’s thrashing by Portugal means the team will not play on past their last group match, on Friday against the Ivory Coast. I suspect Jong Tae-se will manage. As for the regular North Korean fans, however, it’s not clear if they’ll be able to keep watching the Cup, thanks to a dispute between North and South Korea that affects the television signal. As for his rock-paper-scissors-playing comrades headed back to the Korean Peninsula, who knows—which is what makes North Korea’s participation in a sporting event like this one really scary. The team’s spokesman told South African journalists that the team’s one aim was to make the Dear Leader (he really said that) happy. A team whose purpose in winning is to bring honor to an inhumane regime—as South Africa’s apartheid rule was—should not be allowed a world platform to do so, particularly when its players face a dark reward for losing.
The team, except for the two diaspora Japanese ringers (Jong and another guy) were publicly shamed in a six-hour assembly. Weird! I wonder in tonight’s game if they will have any fans? I am looking forward to an interesting experience. I predict a Bahrain win, 2-1. I’ll have photos and a match report tonight.