We all joked about it. I know I did, and I’m sure you did, too.
When North Korea’s soccer team came in last at the 2010 FIFA World Cup (allowing ten goals in its last two games) in June, we kidded about how we’d likely never hear from them again. After all, they were playing for their lives, right? LOL! Or at the very least, they were playing so their families could eat – Har Har. In fact, just about any crack about Kim Jong-Il interpolating himself into highlights of North Korea’s respectable 2-1 loss to Brazil was guaranteed to draw a hearty round of laughter from friends or coworkers. But while those types of jokes are good for a cheap laugh, there’s nothing funny about hearing reports like this.
The allegations of mistreatment, including reports that manager Kim Jong-hun has been forced into hard labor, are serious enough that soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has opened up an investigation. To be sure, the reports of player abuse are considered unconfirmed at this point. But why are they so believable? Is it for the same reason that it’s easy to joke about anything having to do with North Korea’s soccer team and their uneasy relationship with their government’s oppressive regime? Or is it because the media tends to sensationalize any reports of untoward behavior from the North?
Either way, we do know that this sort of thing is not unprecedented, especially in totalitarian states. For instance, FIFA sent investigators to Iraq in 1997 after hearing reports that two Iraqi national team members had been caned at the behest of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s son and the erstwhile head of Iraq’s National Olympic Committee, after a poor performance in World Cup qualifying. Since then, many former players have come forward to detail how they were purportedly “tortured” by Uday on multiple occasions, all for subpar play.
And while these allegations against North Korean officials, even if true, certainly fall short of “torture” by any definition, they undoubtedly point to a potentially dangerous situation in a country that seems to be falling more and more out of touch with the rest of the world. And that, sadly, is no joking matter.
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