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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 111 (June 17, 2010)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

World Cup Fever Sweeps Across North Korea

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Making a World Cup comeback for the first time in 44 years, North Korea has been swept with football fever and finds itself drawing more and more international attention in South Africa, where the football festival is under way.

   North Korea qualified for the World Cup finals, drawn into Group G, the so-called group of death, which includes five-time World Cup champion Brazil and top-ranked contenders Ivory Coast and Portugal.

   Despite being the first Asian team to advance to the first round of the World Cup finals, the North Koreans have been largely invisible in the international football arena.

   The last time the North made it to the World Cup finals was in 1966, when it made a splash by reaching the quarterfinals at the England World Cup. This year, the country ranks 105th among FIFA members, the lowest among the 32 World Cup finalists.

   In its first bout with Brazil on June 15, North Korea played above expectations, but lost 1-2. The North Korean media complimented the players for their performance against the South American country.

   Quickly following North Korea's defeat, Pyongyang's official media reported on June 16 that its side put up a "fierce" fight in its first World Cup match, complimenting the players for their relentless performance.

   The North Koreans "created scoring chances without losing faith despite trailing 0-2" until Ji Yun-nam delivered a goal in the 88th minute, the (North) Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said in a report from Pyongyang.

   "The match was a fierce exchange of offense and defense from the beginning," it said, adding Ji received a header from striker Jong Tae-se and connected to score. North Korea is set to play Portugal early next week.

   Later in the day, the North's official Korean Central TV Broadcasting Station aired the recorded footage of the match in full, according to monitors in Seoul.

   On June 15, a pro-North Korean newspaper reported from Pyongyang that the country is in jubilation with its people glued to television sets showing World Cup specials.

   North Koreans were also excited about South Korea's win over Greece. Choson Sinbo reported from the North Korean capital that North Koreans rejoiced over South Korea's 2-0 World Cup victory over Greece.

   "The match where compatriots played has drawn great attention," Choson Sinbo, published in Tokyo, said in a report datelined from Pyongyang. "The residents, without an exception, cheered for the South Korean team."

   South Korea defeated Greece on June 12 in its first group match of the South Africa World Cup. North Korea aired footage of the South Korean match, but questions lingered over whether the country secured legitimate broadcasting rights.

   Choson Sinbo, run by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, said North Koreans were "riveted" while watching World Cup specials, which were aired for most of June 13. "Who would like to see a nation with the same bloodline lose?" the paper quoted one North Korean as saying. "What we detest is not the South Korean people," but the conservative Seoul government.

   On June 12, the North aired the opening match between South Africa and Mexico. But the South Korean broadcaster SBS said it has the exclusive World Cup broadcasting rights for the Korean Peninsula. Previous talks between SBS and the North collapsed amid ongoing political tension between the divided countries.

   But FIFA, world's football governing body, said June 14 it has signed a deal with Asia's broadcasters' union in an effort to air World Cup matches in North Korea.

   Irrespective of political reason, North Korea is obviously warming up to the hearts of international football fans who are drawn to the mysterious underdog.

   Although the North Koreans have been largely invisible in the international football arena, their most notable achievement besides the England World Cup feat was finishing fourth in the AFC Asian Cup in 1980.

   Top contenders may enjoy rock star celebrity status, but modest fan pages on the socialist country are also appearing on social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

   "I think a lot of people are interested in the team ... as they are the dark horse and an unknown element of the tournament," Simon Cockerell, a China-based Briton who opened a fan page on Facebook, told Yonhap News Agency through e-mail.

   Cockerell's page has gained some 300 members as of the end of May. The 32-year-old is an employee of Koryo Tours in Beijing, which has been running tour programs to North Korea since 1993.

   Said to travel to North Korea regularly every two or three weeks, Cockerell described the page as "a forum for discussion" on the North Korean team, but added it is not in any way involved with the North Korean government or its politics.

   Yannick De Buf, another fan of the North Koreans living in Oostende, Belgium, runs a fan page on Facebook named "The North Korean Football Fan Club." He described the North Korean squad as "one of the strongest teams" in the Asian qualification series.

   North Korea finds itself drawing more and more attention from the international press with its blunt demeanor at public appearances.

   At a press conference held in Johannesburg on June 14, on the eve of the opener with Brazil, North Korean coach Kim Jong-hun appeared confident that his team was prepared but also created some awkward moments, starting with his answer to a question on the team's tactics.

   "There is no such country named 'North Korea,'" he said at the conference held at Ellis Park stadium. "I will take the next question." The country's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

   He was also asked whether the country's leader, Kim Jong-il, reportedly a big football fan, had any influence over the selection of players and the lineup of matches. That was cut off by presiding FIFA media officer for the North Koreans Gordon Watson, who asked the press not to ask any questions with political connotations.

   Another question on whether North Korean matches will be aired live at home was intercepted by the team's media officer, apparently to avoid sensitive issues regarding broadcasting rights. Kim, however, did provide a brief remark, saying that he is "not involved" in the matter.

   The North Korean coach also described his team's mission as playing for the nation's "great leader" several times during the press conference at Ellis Park stadium.

   Watson apparently taking note of the increasing curiosity towards the team, explained at the end of the press conference that North Korea has "met all their media obligations" and that the country has been "very cooperative with all regulations."