Wed, 02 Jun 2010 19:55:00 +0000

In this upcoming World Cup, I only ask for one thing: a North Korean win.

It would mean a lot to them — and me, too.

But, first, how we both got here:

About a 15 years ago, a whole bunch of North Korean kids who were good at soccer turned 11. Except instead of going to sixth grade, they were selected to go to soccer academies. Then, the best of those players were sent to big cities so they could undergo an intense regimen in what were essentially soccer-player factories. All they did was soccer; no school. But, chances are, no one complained. It was a rare way to dig their families out of widespread poverty.

The best of those kids eventually made the North Korea national team. Then last June, they lined up against Saudi Arabia. They played their hearts out and the game ended, 0-0.

But after the match, those kids sprinted onto the field, ripped off their shirts, yelled to the heavens, cried to the hells and smiled. This draw had qualified them for the World Cup — their first since 1966.

About 60 years ago, my grandparents escaped from North Korea. Some of their relatives stayed, and are probably still there now.

Forty years later, I was born. And, to me, North Korea was just the place ancestors were from — like Albuquerque. There was no mystique about it.

But as I grew older, I had questions about my heritage — about North Korea. So I asked my great aunt, who lived there for 30-some years. Yet she couldn’t answer most my questions. To her, North Korea was the place she used to have a home and a small business. It was the place she got married, the place she grew up.

And only then did the Hermit Kingdom truly feel closed off. It went from something I thought I could always have, to something I could not have. It tortured me.

I asked my grandpa about it, and he told me the North Korean government listens to his phone calls. In fact, he changed his name because he thought they were after him.

The aura formed, and I felt detached from North Korea.

What I wanted to know — and perhaps what everyone wants to know — is what normalcy is like there. I thought that would connect me to those people.

Last year, I was watching the North Korean soccer team on TV. When they won, I saw these extreme emotions and I only had questions.

How much did this win improve their lives?

Were they giving all the credit to Kim Il-Sung?

Was this pure, unadulterated emotion?

I was looking for something genuine — something normal I could relate to.

It’s ironic, because the one thing that’s not normal in North Korea is soccer players.

Most people are starving. But soccer players are well fed and nicely housed. Former North Korean coach Moon Ki-Nam, who escaped to the South in 2004, told the Daily NK, “Special treatments are reserved for soccer players.”

Another thing that’s not normal: North Korea on the world’s biggest stage.

It is rare for them to join the world in anything. And it’s even rarer when its people get to take part. North Koreans don’t get normal TV broadcasts, but they will get World Cup games. And, make no mistake, they’ll be watching.

So, in my search for a connection, I found this — soccer.

Even though I can’t picture my North Korean brothers and sisters, and even though I have no idea what their day is like — where they sleep or what they eat — I do know they are ecstatic their home country is in the World Cup. And I do know they’ll go crazy if they win. I know that feeling. I can relate.

And I think what frustrates us about North Korea — we usually can’t relate. They’ve had such a different life than us.

But maybe for a moment, we can feel something similar: The exhilaration and pride of watching one’s countrymen win.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons it might not happen.

1. They’re in Group G, with world powerhouses Brazil, Ivory Coast and Portugal.

2. North Korea plays an extremely defensive game, so goals may be rare.

3. They have no real fans in the crowd. Instead, the North Korean government has hired 1,000 Chinese people to go there and cheer for them. Pisses me off.

4. There are distractions. There will be a lot of political tension around these games. Some people want to ban North Korea from the World Cup, which would anger everyone in that country — and me. Others want to use the games to spread messages to the North Korean people, since these matches will be televised there. Fine by me, I guess.

But if they can overcome all of that — the fierce opponents, the fake fans, the political tensions — and win a game, just one single game ...

Man, that would be special.