History 101 

From yesterday's Kansas City Star (registration required):

Match offers glimpse across international divide
By Mechelle Voepel
The Kansas City Star

COLUMBUS, Ohio — They seem a bit like phantoms, these North Korean women's soccer players.

The last few weeks, they have competed in the United States, a nation that generations of North Koreans have been raised to loathe and fear.

Sunday in chilly Crew Stadium, they fell 3-0 to the Americans and failed to advance to the next round of the Women's World Cup. Now, they will return to their isolated country and again be nearly invisible to outsiders.

What will they take with them?

Memories of kindness — from the New Jersey restaurant owner who cooked for them, the Pennsylvania state senator who helped with arrangements, the church members who gave them transportation? New insights?

The truth is, no one knows. It's not just the language barrier; this team that rarely plays outside Asia has been inaccessible to the U.S. media, fans and almost everyone else.

“They don't talk on the field or when shaking hands, even. They're just very quiet,” American player Joy Fawcett said. “We don't know them at all.”

North Korea did not expect to be in the United States this year. The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in June convinced soccer's international governing body, FIFA, to move this tournament from China to the United States.

So in the midst of near rock-bottom diplomatic relations between the United States and North Korea — the country's official news agency on Saturday referred to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a “psychopath”— the women's soccer teams from the two nations faced off.

There was no sign of hostility toward the North Koreans from the crowd of 22,828 in Columbus. Pockets of Korean-American fans banged on makeshift drums, rang bells and cheered for the North Koreans.

Inny Kim, a 47-year-old who works in research for Bayer, said he made the drive from his home in Cincinnati to support both the North Korean and American teams.

Kim is a native South Korean, from Seoul, and has lived in the United States 15 years. He said there is a heartfelt desire among all Koreans to see their country — split at the 38th parallel for more than a half century — reunited.

“We don't know much about North Korea, except that they have struggled so much, with famine and hard times,” Kim said, explaining that the societal gap between the Koreas still is very wide. “I feel so sorry about that. My wish is to find a way to help that.”

North Korea has a population of about 22 million, though the number of citizens who have died from famine since the mid-1990s is conjecture.

The North Koreans, who long denied any deaths, now acknowledge at least 200,000. Outside sources have estimated that from 500,000 to 3 million people have died.

Kim said that Koreans draw hope for reunification from what happened with Germany.

“In spite of the politics, I believe we're closer,” Kim said. “Will I live to see it? I really don't know. I think both sides can learn to trust each other. Maybe it's like it was here in the United States, after the Civil War.”

The United States is seeking to end North Korea's alleged buildup of nuclear weapons, but talks between U.S. and North Korean officials in China last month and in April have not yielded tangible results.

Because of those tensions, and all the unknowns about North Korea, American reporters covering this tournament have been especially intrigued by the North Korean players.

Their dark hair is cut the same style and length, and they often seem to be wearing uniform facial expressions. They range in age from 18 to 28, and most are students or teachers. They play in an organized league in North Korea when not competing on the national team.

And that is about all the American media know. Questions to the team's interpreter about whether the players have done much sightseeing or television viewing have been shrugged off.

After the team's 1-0 loss to Sweden on Thursday, one North Korean team official complained about practice-field conditions and officiating.

On Sunday, North Korean coach Ri Song Gun reiterated the officiating complaint, but said of the team's stay in this country, “We didn't have any inconveniences.”

The only other glimpse into the team came from Ha Chung Tae, a South Korean who works for FIFA as the liaison for the North Korean team. He said that he heard no discussion of politics among the players, but that they were definitely noticing their surroundings.

“They are very interested in diversity, culture, race,” Ha said. “Most of them are very young, with very limited international experience. A lot of them, they've never seen African-Americans or people with, uh, unique hairstyles…They'll point at people and say, ‘Look!'”

As is the case in China, sports success has great political value. North Koreans haven't had much internationally. When they do, they credit Kim Jong Il, known as a dictator to the Western world but as “the dear leader” to North Koreans.

Fawcett said that, by far, the North Koreans are the biggest mystery to the American players — more so even than China.

“The Chinese are very friendly; they love to talk and love kids. I bring my kids, and they all gravitate toward them,” said Fawcett, a mother of three. “The North Koreans…we haven't had the chance to hang out with them. With China, we built the bonds over the years going over there. But the North Koreans don't come out, and we don't go in.”

Can an event such as the World Cup in any way bring North Korea closer to the rest of the world?

“I think they see a different side; they're young people, and they'll have an impact in their society later,” Fawcett said.

“So hopefully they've had a positive experience while they are here and have met some nice people and can take that back with them.

“You can only hope it will change.”

What the hell do they learn in history class in South Korea?

This Kim fella who was interviewed for this article compares the prospects for a reunification of the Koreas with that of East and West Germany and that of the Union and Confederacy.

News flash: West and East Germany only reunited because the Soviet Union and Communism collapsed. The North and South only reunited because the South lost a war that lasted four years.

Am I being unfair by projecting this guy's sentiments on an entire nation? I don't think so. From what I've read and heard, the pro-unification crowd in South Korea genuinely believes that through increased dialogue, the two sides can erase their misconceptions of each other; resolve their differences; achieve reunification; and live happily ever after, if only the belligerent United States would keep its beak out of such business.

What these people fail to realize is a simple fact: Kim Jong Il and his cronies are tyrants. They brainwash the populace. They drag political dissidents off to the gulags by the millions. Even if you proffer the dubious argument that Kim's regime is not responsible for the starvation of his people, it is clear from the previous points that the mission of the regime is not to govern the people justly and fairly. The mission of the regime is to ensure its own survival. Therefore, the regime will not gracefully step aside and allow the people of a united Korea to live in peace and harmony. While Kim or one of his ilk is in power, the best result that can be achieved is a (possibly short-lived) nonaggression pact that prevents a war but keeps the people of North Korea in poverty and misery. (Maybe that's what South Korea really wants? Sounds like a typical paranoid leftist rant to me...but it fits the data.) A positive reunification can be achieved only if Kim is forced out of power (either by military means or by the internal collapse of the regime).

And just as a parting shot -- I didn't see the USA - North Korea match, but if any Koreans (or anyone else, for that matter) were waving a DPRK flag in the stands, they should be dragged out into the street and shot.

(Thanks to freenorthkorea.net for the pointer.)


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