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N. Korea at the FIFA World Cup

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2024-01-24

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ Getty Images Bank
There are about 870 days left before the FIFA World Cup, the world’s largest single sporting event, kicks off on June 11, 2026. The South Korean national soccer team, led by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, is riding a two-game winning streak, defeating Singapore and China, in the second round of the Asian qualification tournament that started last year. Still, the South Korean team never lets its guard down. 

Having reached the World Cup finals for the tenth straight time since the 1986 Mexico World Cup, South Korea aims to make its eleventh consecutive appearance at the top global football tournament. 

North Korea is also participating in the Asian qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup, which will be jointly hosted by three North American countries: the United States, Canada and Mexico. How has North Korea performed at previous World Cups and how good is its national soccer team? 

Today, we’ll take a look at North Korea at the previous World Cups with Seong Mun-jeong, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science. 

In August last year, North Korea expressed its intention to participate in the Asian qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup, after closing its borders and staying away from international sporting events for years during the COVID-19 pandemic. Placed in Group B of the second round of Asian qualifiers, North Korea has recorded one win and one loss. 

North Korea is grouped with Japan, Syria and Myanmar. It lost to Syria 1-0 but earned a comprehensive 6-1 win over Myanmar. Many had wondered whether North Korea would take part in the Asian qualification for the 2026 World Cup and whether world-renowned North Korean footballer Han Kwang-song would play. Some had predicted that Han would participate in the Hangzhou Asian Games last year, but he didn’t. For the Asian qualifiers for the World Cup, however, North Korean footballers who previously played in Europe, including Han, came together as one. I think this is greatly significant. 

In 2019, North Korea attended the Asian qualifiers for the 2022 Qatar World Cup but later pulled out of the qualifying matches in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Returning to the World Cup Asian qualifiers after about four years, North Korea secured a sweeping 6-1 victory against Myanmar. In particular, North Korea’s football star Han Kwang-song, who had played in Europe and the Middle East, scored a goal in the game against Myanmar, raising expectations for North Korea’s advance to the World Cup finals. Since when did North Korea participate in the World Cup? 

North Korea advanced to the World Cup finals in 1966 and in 2010 since its World Cup debut in 1966. In particular, North Korea’s surprising 1-0 victory over Italy at the 1966 World Cup has been a much-talked-about topic. No one could ever predict such a stunning result. At the time, North Korea was given low odds of winning the World Cup with 16 participating teams, with an estimated probability of a mere 1 percent. Most predicted that North Korea would lose out to Italy in the group stage. The North Korean player who scored a goal was Pak Doo-ik(박두익), who was very well known among South Korean soccer players. The win over Italy enabled North Korea to reach the quarterfinals, where the country lost 3-5 to Portugal. Despite the loss, North Korea scored as many as three goals against Portugal, proving that the North Korean team displayed an outstanding performance. 

North Korea first appeared at the 1966 World Cup in England. It created a sensation by defeating Italy, one of the top teams, in the round of 16 to advance to the quarterfinals and becoming the first Asian team to ever progress from the first round. Even now, it is cited as one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history. 

Afterwards, North Korea failed to reach the World Cup finals, due to the elimination from the preliminaries, abstention or declaration of non-participation. But in 2010, North Korean soccer experienced a renaissance. Joined by Japanese-born North Korean players including An Yong-hak and Jong Tae-se, the North Korean national soccer team made it to the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. 

Although North Korea did not win a single game in the World Cup finals, it shocked the world by playing an impenetrable defense and even scoring a goal against Brazil, which has won the most World Cup titles. North Korea produced a more significant result than a victory at the world’s largest soccer festival. After returning home, the national team was welcomed by Pyongyang citizens on the streets. In fact, soccer is the most popular sport in North Korea. 

North Korea has promoted soccer since the years of regime founder Kim Il-sung, saying that it is one of the sports that suit Koreans’ body type. The North aired international soccer games frequently in 2022, indicating how popular soccer is in the country. Unlike South Korea, North Korea does not have a professional soccer league. Still, soccer games are held at the national sports festival. In the North, there are many sports clubs, which are equivalent to works teams in South Korea. Soccer teams in those sports clubs hold games to contribute to the growing popularity of soccer. 

North Korea’s keen interest in soccer can be found in local media. 

During the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, North Korea aired pre-recorded games and a summary of the games as well. North Korea operates a soccer league, which holds games between soccer teams in sports clubs such as April 25 Sports Club based in Pyongyang and Kigwancha(Locomotive) Sports Club that belongs to the Korean State Railway. The nation also has a football school that nurtures talented players. 

North Korea opened the Pyongyang International Football School in 2013. The school selects talented children, who receive systematic training in the beginner’s class or the advanced class. It seems famous footballers who previously played for the national team work there. The school has invited well-known soccer coaches from European countries including Italy and also sent excellent players to Europe.  

Players who show off their brilliant skills on the international football stage mostly received systematic training from childhood. North Korea is also benchmarking training programs of soccer powerhouses. 

North Korea opened the Pyongyang International Football School in 2013 in accordance with leader Kim Jong-un’s vision to build a sports powerhouse. The school provides the best education to young male and female students who were selected from around the country. In pursuit of globalization of North Korean soccer, the nation teaches the students English and computers as well as soccer. Students with outstanding skills are sent abroad to Europe for more training. 

Han Kwang-song, who played on the major football stage in Europe, also attended the Pyongyang International Football School. 

After the football school opened, 14 North Korean students were sent to Spain and 15 to Italy with government support. Han Kwang-song is one of the 14 students who left for Spain. He definitely stood out. In 2015, he caught the attention of the Italian Soccer Management Academy. In 2017, in the fourth year of receiving training abroad, he officially joined the youth team of Cagliari in Italy’s first division Serie A. He was immediately promoted to the professional team, scoring his first goal just a week after his professional debut. Many say that Han is known as “North Korean Ronaldo” and a player equivalent to South Korea’s Son Heung-min. 

In North Korea, Han is called North Korea’s Ronaldo and the people’s Ronaldo. He is the first North Korean player who scored a goal in one of Europe’s major soccer leagues. After playing in Perugia in Italy, he joined the prestigious club Juventus to draw worldwide attention. 

The Pyongyang International Football School has won numerous gold medals and produced top prize winners at international competitions over the last ten years. In addition to Han Kwang-song, many more North Korean footballers including Pak Kwang-ryong, Jong Il-gwan and Choe Song-hyok played in Europe. North Korea has been putting a lot of effort into fostering soccer talent. Is there any special reason for that? 

It is possible to train soccer players without large investments in facilities. Also, football is more active than any other sport in the international sports market. I think North Korea turned its eyes to this field. A single, well-trained player can generate more profits than thousands of workers abroad. Han Gwang-song is a good example. His transfer fee was some five million US dollars. It was alleged that he sent most of his salary back to his homeland. His career was hampered by U.N. sanctions that require member states to stop providing work authorizations to overseas North Korean workers and repatriate them. Still, from North Korea’s viewpoint, excellent footballers playing abroad, like Han, serve as a great source of income. That’s why North Korea is investing so heavily in training soccer players. 

North Korea created a school specialized in fostering soccer talent. It means the country takes a great interest in and has affection for the sport. Since the early years in office, leader Kim Jong-un has given full support to soccer, partly because soccer players could be used for earning foreign currency. When a talented footballer joins a famous club, he receives salaries and transfer fees that ordinary people can hardly imagine. While allowing athletes to play abroad, North Korea has collected a certain percentage of their income as “loyalty funds.” For that reason, the U.N. Security Council defined North Korean footballers who played in Europe as workers earning foreign currency. 

Even so, if North Korean players prove successful abroad, North Korea can produce an intangible effect of improving its national image. In this way, soccer can strengthen the image of North Korea as a normal state, increase income by exporting players and arouse North Korean residents’ interest in the sport. It comes as no surprise that North Korea is using soccer effectively. 

North Korea has returned to the international soccer stage after four years by joining the Asian qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup. How will the country perform at the qualifying matches? 

The 2026 World Cup could be an opportunity for North Korea. Previously, only 32 countries participated in the World Cup finals. But many more teams will appear in the 2026 event, meaning that the quota for the finals has increased. Asia will now have eight direct slots. Considering the level of North Korean soccer, the country could be included in the list of eight. It depends on how strong North Korea’s teamwork will be, compared to other countries.

With the increase in the size of the World Cup in 2026, Asia will get 8.5 guaranteed places, up from 4.5 for previous events, increasing the chances of North Korea advancing to the finals. North Korea has shown deep affection for soccer, actively training football prodigies. We wonder what impact it’s going to have on the future of North Korea’s soccer. Attention is being paid to the result to be produced by one, round soccer ball. 

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