The intelligence digest Stratfor has a really thought provoking article up about the mystery surrounding North Korea’s soccer team:
North Korea is the most mysterious of all the teams to compete in the 2010 World Cup. As in soccer, so it is in geopolitics. Before the tournament started, no one outside North Korea knew what to expect of the team. There is little reliable intelligence on what goes on inside the country whether it’s soccer or anything else. The secretive communist state keeps its doors closed tight and maintains total control of news media. Paid actors, not real North Korean fans, have made up the team’s audience in South Africa. The one reliable way to gauge the North is to expect the unexpected: last time the DPRK participated in the World Cup — in 1966 — it surprised everyone by blasting through to the quarterfinals.
The first match in 2010, against Brazil, exemplified North Korea’s geopolitical strategy and tactics. Few would have guessed that North Korea was capable of competing with Brazil, the team that has won the most World Cup championships. But for decades the same combination of uncompromising loyalty to the group and the element of surprise have enabled Pyongyang to maintain power despite being surrounded by the likes of greater powers — the United States, Russia, Japan, China and South Korea.
This is not to exaggerate North Korea’s strengths — its economy is a shambles, and despite its military’s size, its capabilities are limited. Fear of defeat by foreign competition is why the North rarely ventures abroad, earning the nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.” Pyongyang knows that public humiliation could weaken the group morale that is essential for the regime to survive. But as with its array of missile tests, it is at least able to use the team’s participation on the global stage as domestic propaganda.
North Korea’s presence in an international sporting event like the World Cup sounds very analogous to the emphasis by Saddam Hussein and his sons on the Iraqi Olympic Soccer Team, who were famously tortured by Uday Hussein when they failed to meet expectations, and the Soviet Olympic Teams, which utilized the Olympic Games as another means to try to best the west. Even if you’re not a fan of the sport, the political proxy nature of the World Cup should be fascinating enough to illicit at least nominal interest in the event.