06.15.10

Can You Root for North Korea?

Brazil and North Korea faced off in the World Cup today. Tunku Varadarajan gives the play-by-play.

Brazil, as expected, beat North Korea in their World Cup match today. Any other result would have been an upset of eccentric proportions—or would have merited a full-scale U.N. inquiry into North Korean subterfuge.

There were surprises and ironies aplenty: The first came at the very start, when the teams lined up for their respective national anthems. Giving lie to the belief that decades of undernourishment have plagued North Korea, we saw that several North Korean players were towering, sturdy types, no less physically impressive than the Brazilians. (That said—and I say this without proof—I’m willing to wager that each member of the national soccer team gets more food to eat each day than an entire North Korean village.)

So this correspondent rooted for Brazil, while appreciating all the while the defensive discipline of the North Koreans, who packed their own half so intensively that it appeared, at times, to have as many North Korean defenders as the 38th parallel.

The other stereotype—that North Korea is a land of robotic serfs—also took a beating, as the cameras panned to a member of the Korean team who was weeping openly, and copiously, with that rarest of North Korean qualities: emotion. (It turns out the player was born in Japan, one of two members of the team who hold North Korean citizenship but who live and ply their soccer in Japan.)

The match itself was charming: Who can resist a David v. Goliath story of this sort—Brazil’s team is ranked number one in the world, North Korea’s 105th? That said, it is philosophically devilish to root for the underdog in circumstances where an upset is certain to be embraced as a heaven-sent opportunity for propaganda by the nation’s Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il. (In fact, the North Korean coach has said that all successes are to be dedicated to the Dear Leader.)

Our Complete Coverage of World Cup 2010: Photos, Videos, and More So this correspondent rooted for Brazil, while appreciating all the while the defensive discipline of the North Koreans, who packed their own half so intensively that it appeared, at times, to have as many North Korean defenders as the 38th parallel. (The billboards that surrounded the players were, piquantly, advertising McDonald’s and Hyundai.)

Brazil scored two lovely goals, both stamped with their irrepressible panache. But minutes before the match ended, the North Koreans offered up one last surprise: a deft goal that was free-spirited and spontaneously executed. In other words, it was a thing of beauty from a land of ignoble ugliness. One could not help but applaud, even if the goal was grist to the glory-mill of the Dear Leader.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)