Now is not a good time to be a member of North Korea's World Cup team.
Kim Jong-il's squad was embarrassed today on the global soccer stage, falling to Portugal 7-0. And did we mention that the match was televised live in the DPRK? So, the few North Koreans who actually have TV sets got to share in their nation's soccer humiliation.
We don't claim to be "futbol" fans, so the vagaries of the World Cup are something of a mystery to us. From our perspective, it's slightly amazing that North Korea actually qualified for the World Cup, and played well in their first match against soccer superpower Brazil, losing by only a 2-1 margin.
Still, you don't want to be an athlete, actor, soldier, movie star (or anyone else) who embarrasses the Kim Dynasty. Several DPRK defectors have suffered violent or mysterious deaths after fleeing the Worker's Paradise, a reminder that you never really "leave" North Korea.
And, consider the case of those DPRK "volunteer" pilots who served in the Vietnam War. For decades, there were rumors that some of North Vietnam's MiGs were actually flown by North Koreans. But details of their participation didn't emerge until almost 30 years later. In March 2001, a Vietnamese government official told South Korea's Yonhap news agency that at least 11 DPRK fighter pilots are buried in his country. All died while fighting the U.S. in the skies over North Vietnam.
While the Vietnamese have praised the North Korean pilots, other accounts paint a different story. At least one intelligence report suggests the DPRK volunteers were killed during a relatively brief period, resulting in their relegation to non-combat assignments.
There is also the matter of their burial location. Some analysts suggest that if the North Korean fighter pilots had performed well, Kim il-Sung would have insisted on the return of their remains, so the "martyrs" could be honored at home. Instead, the dead pilots were interred in North Vietnam, with no official acknowledgement of their participation until July 2001--more than 30 years after they died, and almost three months after the original Yonhap report.
Urban legend says the elder Kim was so disgusted by his pilots "performance" that he essentially washed his hands of the volunteers, leaving it up to North Vietnam to arrange their burial and provide grave markers. Visits to the cemetery by the DPRK embassy staffers suggest that attitudes have mellowed a bit, but Pyongyang's decades of silence suggest the volunteer pilots are not regarded as heroes back home.
It's also worth remembering that NKAF participation in Vietnam was officially a secret, so relatively few North Koreans were even aware of their sacrifice. But, their poor performance was a personal affront to Kim il-Sung, one reason the dead MiG drivers are still resting in North Vietnam and not the DPRK.
Contrast that to the North Korean soccer team which committed its faux pas in public. Remember, this is the same squad that was receiving personal direction from Kim Jong-il (via an "invisible" cell phone), with "hired" fans from the Chinese delegation. Obviously, most North Koreans aren't allowed to travel outside their own country (hence, the "rent-a-cheering section" approach), but that didn't stop Pyongyang from investing considerable time, resources and propaganda on its World Cup effort.
If it's any consolation for the North Korean players, they still have one more match (against Ivory Coast) before they head home. In theory, that gives them a few more days to plan a possible defection. But we're guessing the DPRK team is now under lock down at their hotel--to prevent that scenario--so after playing Ivory Coast, it's back home to the welcoming arms of Kim Jong-il.
We can only speculate about the type of reception the Dear Leader has in store. Suffice it to say, there will be a lot of new faces on the North Korean national team in the near future, and the level of play in the Gulag league will probably rise (temporarily), with an infusion of new talent.