Defectors cheer for the country they lost

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Defectors cheer for the country they lost

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Children hold up a unification flag as North Korean defectors and their families and colleagues root for the Chollima during Monday night’s World Cup game between North Korea and Portugal. [YONHAP]

The shouts ringing out at the Kumgang bar in Yeongdeungpo, southwestern Seoul, on Monday night weren’t the usual cheers of “Daehanminguk!”(“Republic of Korea!”). Instead, underneath a red banner depicting the unification flag, 20 people dressed in red T-shirts reading “We are the one” screamed “Joguktongil” - Korean for “Unification of Korea!” - as they watched North Korea take on Portugal at the 2010 World Cup.

While South Koreans have applauded and despaired as their cousins to the North faced off against some of the world’s finest footballers, this game had special meaning to the fans who packed the bar. The crowd was made up of North Korean defectors and their families and colleagues, all of whom had come to root for the North in its first World Cup outing in 44 years.

“Urineunhana!” - “We are one!” - they shouted.

The rooters laid the emphasis on “we” and “unification” partly out of consideration for the national security law, and fear that the South could see support of North Korea - even its flag - as illegal activity benefitting the enemy. And extra caution is needed these days, said the men who organized the cheering rally, as the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan has aroused hostility toward the North.

But the words were also chosen to show the hearts of the defectors, now divided equally between the land they turned their backs on in despair and the one they once considered an enemy and now call home.

“If there were a football game between two Koreas, it would be a real mind-boggler. It would be very hard to choose who to cheer for,” said one 37-year-old North Korean defector who called himself Hasar Choi.

Choi said he fled his home in North Hamgyong in 2001, leaving behind his parents and three younger siblings. He blamed the Northern regime’s mismanagement - and the famine and poverty it caused - for his hardship,

“I heard from my family that the famine there is worsening again,” he said.

Still, Choi said, he is nostalgic for the North.

“I hate its leaders and politicians, but I don’t hate the country itself,” said Choi, a manager of a small, Seoul-based engineering company and had brought his South Korean colleagues to cheer with him. “It’s the country that gave birth to me,” he said.

The 90-minute game began with the North showing aggression. The Chollima stepped up to the game with a 2-1 loss to Brazil behind it, facing a team that had tied 1-1 with Ivory Coast in the first match.

But the tide quickly turned, and by halftime Portugal was leading 1-0.

Jeong Eui-seong, 32, the owner of the bar, lit a cigarette, still his eyes fixed on the large-screen TV. He said many thoughts crossed his mind as he watched the game.

“Considering the unfair treatment that I suffered there, I should think they [North Korea] deserve to lose, but I don’t,” Jeong said. “I’m just sorry that they are losing that way. It’s hurting.”

Once one of the most promising football players in his hometown of North Hamgyong, Jeong might have found himself on that North Korean squad. What kept him off the team wasn’t his skills, but his “problematic family history.”

Jeong said he was selected for the youth national team at the age of 13, but was forced to return home the very day he joined the training session after authorities learned that his grandfather had been a police clerk during the 1910-1945 Japanese colonization of Korea.

In the North, such a “disgrace” is never cleansed, Jeong said, and is enough to keep generations of a family off the Communist Party roster, let alone the national team.

“There was no hope that I could have there,” Jeong said. He came to South Korea in October 2002.

As the game raced toward a 7-0 landslide for Portugal, people continued to shout for “one goal.”

North Korean striker Jong Tae-se had promised before the game that he would take off his team uniform to show off the unification flag he’d drawn on his undershirt if he scored.

“I was hoping that if the two Koreas got into the round of 16 together it might help ease the tension between them, but now that’s impossible,” said Jeong Hyo-jin, one of Choi’s South Korean colleagues, after the game.

But even in defeat, the defectors showed how much they’ve taken their new home to heart.

“I pray now that South Korea will avenge North Korea by beating Nigeria,” Jeong said.


By Moon Gwang-lip [joe@joongang.co.kr]
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