North Korea face U.S. in nuclear women's clash

  • Other Sport
  • Monday, 30 Jul 2012

LONDON (Reuters) - North Korea face the United States in an Olympic women's football match on Tuesday that will pit the hermit state against the global superpower it has loathed since they fought a Cold War conflict six decades ago.

The hostility is very much a live issue in world diplomacy, with Washington intent on frustrating the North's nuclear armaments ambitions. In 2002, President George W. Bush branded North Korea part of an "axis of evil", along with Iran and Iraq.

The division of the Korean peninsula has already made an impact on the Games after the North Korean women walked off the football pitch before a match last week because screens displayed the flag of their South Korean foes.

Rent apart by U.S. and Soviet rivalry after the end of World War Two, the Koreas have never made peace since the capitalist South, backed by the Americans, and the Communist North, aided by China and the Soviets, went to war in 1950-1953.

The South Korean flag blunder by Olympic organisers, before a match against Colombia that the North Koreans went on to win 2-0, brought the political sensitivities to the fore ahead of the highly charged clash against the Americans.

It would be difficult to imagine a sporting contest between two more different nations.

On the one hand, a global economic powerhouse whose cultural influence can be felt across the globe, a society hooked on 24-hour media and the Internet, a land of plenty where the number one threat to public health is the high obesity rate.

On the other, an impenetrable fortress run by a dynasty of dictators, cut off from the rest of the planet by barbed wire and strict controls over any form of communication, an economic disaster zone where millions go short of food.

KCNA, the official North Korean news agency, has set the tone for how sports and politics can mix with an article on Tuesday entitled "Local People Delightful at DPRK Successes in Olympiad". DPRK is the acronym of the North's full name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The article quoted citizens lauding their athletes after North Korea made a strong start in the London Olympics, winning three medals in the first two days.


"Some evil-minded foreign media asserted that the DPRK would take only one silver medal, but our sportspersons refuted such assertion with good results," said Kim Chon Sok, a department director at the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.

"The hostile forces had better try hard to get a correct understanding of the DPRK," said Kim, according to KCNA.

In theory, the Olympics is supposed to be a politics-free zone, but that has never really been the case.

In the early years of the Cold War, Hungary and the Soviet Union faced off in Olympic water polo at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, a month after Soviet troops had violently suppressed a Hungarian uprising against Communist rule.

The clash went down in Olympic lore as the "blood in the water" match after a Soviet player punched a Hungarian rival, drawing blood. The crowd reacted so furiously that the match was suspended. Hungary had been leading and were awarded victory. They went on to win the gold medal.

Organisers of London 2012 will be hoping that nothing quite as dramatic happens at Old Trafford, home of Premier League club Manchester United, on Tuesday.

The American women's football team, bidding for a third consecutive Olympic gold medal, have already secured their place in the knock-out phase of the tournament with victories over Colombia and France.

They go into the North Korean match as firm favourites and have little at stake beyond avoiding an embarrassing slip that would undoubtedly generate acres of mocking newsprint.

But the picture is very different for the North Korean players, who carry the hopes of a country where unsuccessful athletes risk rather more than bad headlines.

The North Korean men's football team were subjected to six hours of public "ideological criticism" in Pyongyang after they returned without a win from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, according to Radio Free Asia, a Western-influenced, pro-democracy broadcaster.

South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo has quoted an intelligence source as saying that in the past, North Korean athletes who performed badly were sent to prison camps.

But Jong Tae-se, a Japan-born North Korean striker known to home fans as "the People's Rooney" for his similarities to the England striker, denied on a South Korean TV talk show that North Korean athletes paid for defeat with their freedom.


On the upside, talented North Korean athletes can earn perks for themselves and their families in a country where most people live in dire poverty in the famine-ravaged countryside.

"Families (of footballers) are said to have moved to the best apartments of athletes in Pyongyang," Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector who now works for major South Korean newspaper Dong-A Ilbo, said on his blog in 2010, ahead of the World Cup.

"Especially, thanks to their sons, families from rural regions also obtained Pyongyang citizenship which is like ask for the moon. This shows football is the most popular sport where the country is putting its most efforts."

The North Korean women's team have a relatively distinguished record, having won the 2008 Asian Football Confederation's tournament. But they were caught up in scandal at the 2011 women's World Cup in Germany, where five of the players tested positive for banned steroids.

North Korean officials said at the time that players had taken some traditional Chinese medication based on musk deer glands to help them recover from a lighting strike during a training match in North Korea weeks before the tournament.

The North Korean men's team had already claimed their place in sporting history with a win over Italy in the 1966 World Cup. Italy were considered favourites until North Korea scored to earn a 1-0 win in Middlesborough, northeast England.

Days later, North Korea almost pulled off another huge upset when they swept to a 3-0 lead over Portugal after 25 minutes, but they eventually lost their quarter-final 5-3.

Cultural links have remained in place between Middlesbrough and North Korea ever since 1966. An opera company based in the Middlesbrough area has performed in North Korea, and veterans from the North Korean team of 1966 have returned for visits.

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park in Seoul and Mike Collett in London; Editing by Alison Williams)

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