'We will cheer for the team, but no one can support the regime,' say N Korean fans

Britain's tiny group of North Korean expats met last night. Kevin Rawlinson joined them

Wednesday 16 June 2010 00:00

North Korea: a football team in need of fans. The regime in Pyongyang – unwilling to let its citizens leave the fatherland lest they abscond – recruited Chinese nationals to travel to South Africa to pretend to support its players. Kim Jong-il has also put a block on live broadcasts of the country's World Cup games lest events not go to plan.

Yet last night, an intrigued outside world looked on as the players of North Korea – or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, as it likes to call itself – stepped up to the pinnacle of sport, and came within at least an imaginable distance of pulling off the unthinkable, before losing 2-1 to Brazil.

For those North Koreans who have fled the regime, yesterday evening's game prompted mixed emotions. One former mid-ranking North Korean military official who now lives in Britain, and who did not want to be named, told The Independent that he missed his family and his country and longed to return – but doing so would mean execution. He said he feared death if the regime caught up with him here. He said that, to many expat North Koreans, the national football team was a symbol of the regime. "The team is under the influence of the government and we see it as a symbol of what we had to leave behind," he explained. "No one can support the regime."

But, he added, "our feelings are complicated. We cheered for our team. We wanted them to beat Brazil because the team is also a representative and a reminder of our homeland. Even if we do not support the government, we are proud of our country."

In south London yesterday afternoon, at the inaugural meeting of the European North Korean Residents' Association, which The Independent attended, North Korean emigrants stood with hands on hearts and eyes closed. They pledged to help their countrymen, to work to bring democracy to North Korea and unification with its neighbour to the south. One member wished the North Korean team success and invited his fellow members to toast a glorious North Korean victory over stylish Brazil.

"I had to leave North Korea, the country of my birth," explained one man. "I left for China but it was not safe for me there, so I had to keep moving until I finally arrived and settled here [in the UK]. I am very happy living here. They would kill me if I ever went back so I am staying here. I want to help other Koreans gain their freedom."

He told of an odyssey by train, bus, car, plane and long stretches by foot, beginning in China, Myanmar and Thailand before making his way across Asia and Europe to the UK.

North Korea's journey to the 2010 World Cup finals has also been remarkable. The team is the lowest ranked of the 32 present in South Africa.

Since arriving, players have been made to conduct unorthodox training sessions in a public gym. In one session, instead of practising penalties or corners, the players were seen heading a ball between the legs of all of their teammates. In another, they had gone down to the local gym and were doing shuttle runs in the aisles between the weightlifting equipment, dodging confused regulars as they went.

The facilities this time round were at least better than those afforded the players during the country's last appearance at a World Cup finals, when they trained at the ICI chemical works near their Middlesbrough base for the 1966 tournament in England.

That year, there were rumours that the North Korean team had suffered retribution from the authorities after going out of the finals.

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