Red devils vs. 'axis of evil'The North Korean national team is coming to the South for the first time since the two Koreas held a goodwill match in 1990. The men's teams will have an exhibition game at the Sangam World Cup Stadium in Seoul on Saturday. The women's team, as well as the men's, will participate in the Busan Asian Games that open Sept. 29.
Accordingly, South Koreans' interest in North Korean soccer is soaring. To learn about the recent trends going on in North Korean soccer, the JoongAng Ilbo met with Choi Myeong-dong (not his real name), who was the coach of the North Korean adult soccer team until he defected to the South in 2000.
North Korea did not participate in international soccer competitions for several years in the late 1990s. Why?
In 1993, North Korea was matched against South Korea in the qualifying round for the 1994 U.S. World Cup games. In the match held in Doha, Qatar, North Korea sustained a crushing defeat, 3 to 0. The North Korean defense commission chairman, Kim Jong-il, was furious after seeing the game on television and ordered the soccer team not to participate in international competitions, but to concentrate on training.
How has North Korea adopted advanced soccer technology?
The North Korean soccer science laboratory imports various soccer books and videotapes from foreign countries. The laboratory director, Ri Dong-gyu, has never been a soccer player, but he has profound knowledge of soccer and is popular as a television soccer match commentator. The laboratory imports videos of European professional league matches to distribute to North Korean teams.
How many adult teams does North Korea have?
There are eight first-class athletic groups including the big four. The big four are the April 25 Athletic Group under the Ministry of the People's Armed Forces, the Aprok River Athletic Group under the police, the Pyeongyang City Athletic Group and the Locomotive Athletic Group. There are four major tournaments a year: the Mount Baekdu Prize in February, the Mangyeongdae Prize in April, the Bocheongbo Torchlight Prize in June and the Republic Championship in October. Those competitions involve many kinds of sports, but the soccer matches are more popular than any other event.
What is the status of North Korean soccer players?
Soccer players are paid a little more than ordinary workers. If a North Korean athlete does well in international games, such as the Olympics and the World Championships, he will get a house on a main street in Pyeongyang and the title "hero." But players have not received such favors recently because of the national team's mediocre performance. The condition of North Korean soccer players is generally poor. Only national team players have high-quality soccer balls and shoes. They find it difficult to earn a living after they retire in their 30s.
How about the North Korean school soccer teams?
There are middle and high schools specializing in soccer. If students want to be soccer players, they have to go to such a school. They have a few academic subjects and focus on training. An excellent soccer player can go to college and be exempted from the military. In North Korea, men usually must serve in the military for eight years.
What are the characteristics of North Korean soccer?
North Korean soccer teams prefer 3-5-2 or 4-4-2 formations. Ri Jeong-man, the coach of the current national team, used to be a midfielder. He was good enough to play for the national team for 16 years, beginning when he was 17 years old. He prefers clever players and attaches greater importance to technique than to physical strength. North Korean soccer traditionally emphasizes the importance of mental power. North Korean players' physical strength fails to match their mental power due to the nation's poor economic conditions. They have no chance to eat a lot of meat.
What do you think about the result of the inter-Korean friendly?
Until the 1990s, North Korean soccer leaders thought that their national team could defeat the South Korean team. But their spirit was depressed after the defeat in Doha in 1993. Now North Korean coaches are reluctant to coach the national team. Considering the ability of the North Korean team, the inter-Korean exhibition game is likely to end with a runaway victory for the South Korean team.
A breakdown of the abilities of the men's and women's teams
By Chang Hye-soo
The North Korean men's soccer team held the 126th place on the FIFA World Ranking in August, and is 22nd in the 53-member Asian Football Confederation. The country has participated in 19 A-matches since 2000, recording six wins, six losses and seven draws.
North Korea did not even participate in the Asian regional qualifying round for the 2002 World Cup games, co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. It was eliminated in the qualifying round for the 2000 Asian Cup.
The country is now focusing on small competitions, where it can do well, such as the King's Cup of Thailand. North Korea took the championship in the 2001 King's Cup, with four countries participating.
The average player on the North Korean national team is just 20.5 years old. Several older team players retired in 2000.
Experts say the North Korean team's mental adroitness and speed are excellent, but its technique and its ability to coordinate offense and defense are poor.
A remarkable player is Gin Yeong-jun, 19, a midfielder. He is 185 centimeters tall, has good technique and plays with remarkable intelligence for his age.
The North Korean women's team has been more successful than the men's team in recent years. The national team defeated the Japanese team 2-0 in the Asian Women's Soccer Championship finals held in Taiwan last year.
The North Korean team defeated China, 3-1, in the championship's semifinals. China is generally considered to have the top women's soccer team in Asia.
North Korea has long developed women's soccer. While North Korea has eight first-class teams for men's soccer, there are 12 first-class teams for women's soccer.
North Korean women's soccer improved sharply after the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il ordered athletic officials to "nurture the competitive events among female sports events."
It has taken less than 10 years for the North Korean women's team to become one of the strongest in Asia, if not the world.
The North Korean women's team finished second at the Asian Women's Soccer Championship in 1993 and 1997. The national team also took second place at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games.
In the 1999 Women's World Cup hosted by the United States, North Korea failed to advance to the second round, but the team did beat Denmark. The women's team also retired several of its older players.
The North Korean women's team is known for its physical strength. The players are especially strong at tackling and heading.
Jo Seong-ok, 28, Ri Gem-suk, 24, and Jin Byeol-hi, 22, are the team's best forwards.
The North Korean women's team is one of the strongest candidates to win at the Busan Asian Games.
by Jeong Young-jae