N. Korea eyes football gold at games

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N. Korea eyes football gold at games

HONG KONG - North Korea is eyeing a third consecutive women’s football gold at the Asian Games and has high hopes of success in gymnastics and weightlifting as they plan ahead to the 2012 London Olympics.

The isolated nation - better known for its nuclear weapons program and dubious human rights record - is sending a team of about 200 athletes to neighboring China for this month’s sporting showpiece in Guangzhou.

In Doha four years ago, North Korea finished with a total haul of 31 medals, including six golds. The country followed up two years later at the Beijing Olympics with two golds and six medals overall.

For a nation that had only ever reached the World Cup finals once before their appearance in South Africa this year, North Korea has a unique place in football folklore because of their exploits in England in 1966.

But their women footballers have enjoyed a string of successes in recent years and are currently sixth in the world rankings.

North Korea’s women took the gold medal in Doha in 2006 to retain the crown they won in Busan, South Korea, in 2002.

They also won the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in 2006, came out top in the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008 and reached the final of this year’s AFC Women’s Asian Cup, losing to Australia on penalty kicks.

Away from the football pitch, the nation’s sporting strengths include gymnastics and weightlifting.

Hong Un-Jong took gymnastics gold in the women’s vault competition at the Beijing Olympics, with Pak Hyon-Suk winning the women’s 63-kilogram (139-pound) weightlifting crown. At the East Asian Games in Hong Kong in December last year, Pak won one of four golds in weightlifting and North Korea also a gold in judo - out of a total of six golds for North Korea. Kim Kum-Ok won the women’s half marathon.

Earlier this year, Kim, who placed 12th in the marathon at the 2008 Olympics, vowed to take Asian Games gold after winning the Mangyongdae Prize Marathon on home soil in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.

Details of the makeup of the team traveling to China - the North’s one major ally - are sketchy, but North Korea Olympic Committee member Yon Yong-Bok told China’s official Xinhua news agency that the team of about 200 athletes would take part in more than 20 events.

He said they were strong in football, weightlifting, gymnastics and shooting. He stressed the games were a rehearsal for the London Olympics and an opportunity to spot and cultivate promising athletes.

North Koreans are a curiosity at international sporting events because of the closed nature of their society.

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