Dear Leader: We almost won! North Korea plays against state censorship

by Nick Aveling, National Post, 15 June, 2010

North Korea will face Brazil on June 15 in their first Group G 2010 World Cup football tournament match in South Africa (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

The North Koreans are bound to suffer a questionable defeat on Tuesday due to unforeseeable circumstances and unbelievably bad luck — but their exploits will shine for all ages thanks to their valiant hearts, which beat in tune with the Dear Leader’s.

Either that or the North Korean media won’t report at all on the game against perennial World Cup favourite Brazil, say observers.

“All of the media is censored in North Korea, so a serious defeat is not going to be taken very kindly,” said Erich Weingartner, who distributed food aid from Pyongyang in the late 1990s, becoming the first Canadian to achieve resident status in North Korea.

A serious defeat is virtually guaranteed. According to the latest FIFA rankings, North Korea is ranked 105th — the lowest of any team in the World Cup. Canada, as a point of comparison, is 63rd. Brazil is first.

The numbers spell trouble for the North Korean mother party, tasked since the country drew this year’s Group of Death with explaining or erasing two likely drubbings at the feet of Brazil and Portugal to a populace used to hearing only about its superiority.

Experts were split on Monday as to exactly what tack the state would take.

“I would think it won’t be reported at all,” said Mr. Weingartner, who edits The CanKor Report, a journal focusing on North Korean issues and policy. “I think they’ll wait to see if they do any better against some other team. Except for the few North Koreans who somehow have access to South Korean media, no one will know the difference.”

Even the Ivory Coast, the group’s final member, is a heavy favourite to beat North Korea. And there is another problem, said Donald Rickerd, associate director of York University’s Asian Business and Management program. Kim Jong-Il’s propaganda machine has backed itself into a corner, having already championed the team to the point of no return.

“The team left with great fanfare — the ceremony at the airport and so forth — so [if their games aren’t reported] people will be saying to themselves, ‘What happened? Did the team just disappear?’ ”

Foreign affairs consultant Hartmuth Kroll, meanwhile, agreed today’s game will be reported — to an extent.

“It will be reported that they competed at the very highest level and did very well by citing the Dear Leader’s thoughts and only through the worst possible luck did they fail to win, probably without mentioning the score,” said Mr. Kroll, a former diplomat who led Canada’s relations with the Korean Peninsula.

In the event of victory, theoretically possible when the team faces the 27th ranked Ivory Coast on June 25, the experts agreed the state-run media would be in a frenzy

“Exultation,” said Mr. Kroll. “And all credit would go to the Dear Leader.”

North Korea’s only previous berth in the World Cup, which in 1966 produced a surprise win against Italy en route to the quarter finals, is a touchstone moment in the country’s sporting history.

International sporting events are never broadcast live in North Korea, for two reasons: the probability of a loss, which challenges the state’s narrative of blanket North Korean superiority, and the possibility of chants or signs that don’t flatter Kim Jong-Il.

There is also the matter of South Korea’s refusal to share its exclusive Korean Peninsula broadcast rights, a practice it abandoned this year after sharing in 2006. Already, reports are circulating state-run North Korea Central Broadcasting aired a bootleg replay of the tournament’s opening match.

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