Participation in the Fifa World Cup throws North Korea into famine

Diana Yu ('11) / Global Commentary Editor

As the 2010 Fifa World Cup draws to a close, it is quite interesting to reflect on its spirited combination of diplomacy and soccer. While there were many upsets this year, perhaps the most shocking and strange was the North Korean soccer team’s announcing that they would compete because “it will bring great happiness to [their] Dear Leader.” So it was true. Penniless North Korea competed for the first time since 1966 when it made the quarter-finals.

The strangeness of North Korea’s bid for the World Cup trophy carried on into their games when a paid conductor actually directed the North Korean fans to cheer at certain times. Controversy soon arose when news outlets discovered that a good amount of the “fans” were really Chinese actors and dancers willing to lend a hand to their ally. Kim Jong-Il, or the “Dear Leader”, even claimed that he was telepathically communicating with the coach to give advice on game tactics.

Despite the cheerful North Korean fans and the team van bearing the words “1966 again”, the team faced its inevitable and embarrassing 7 to 0 defeat against Portugal. After numerous complications with Fifa, various altercations with the press, and a game strategy devised by a totalitarian dictator, the North Koreans finally headed home to a famine that only worsened in their absence.

If anything, their hopeful and spirited entry into the World Cup only emphasized the listless population under Kim Jong-Il’s regime. On the same day North Korea qualified for the competition, the government announced that it would end all food rations to its people; it asked for all villages to become self-sufficient. However, given that many families and small communities are located far away from any sort of market or urban outlet, the upcoming winter will definitely prove disastrous to a population already racked by poverty and starvation.

Anticipating a violent response to such a drastic measure, the government already initiated the confiscation of small potential weapons such as knives and also tightened the border to prevent possible defectors from escaping to South Korea.

The Pyongyang government in North Korea abandoned the food crisis when its two largest donors, South Korea and China, refused further continuation of aid (South Korea cut off aid when North Korea sank a South Korean ship in March, killing 46 people).

North Korea, in hopes that China will be as obliging as they had once been during the World Cup, has appealed to Chinese companies for the provision of food, grain, and business. Some people, realizing their poverty, have already escaped into China. Reports from such defectors show that the situation back at home is worsening every day.

Despite North Korea’s past and ongoing efforts, humanitarian aid toward North Korea has historically always been sparse because of Kim Jong-Il’s hostile regime. With few allies to sustain it and economic isolation from the rest of the world, North Korea seems to be facing a famine as devastating as the one that wiped out hundreds of thousands in the 1990s.