When one thinks of North Korea, what springs to mind? The Korean War? Nuclear testing? The back and forth between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump? Bad haircuts? It could be any one of these unpleasant things. But football? The people’s game? Surely not. Yet, the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have hit the headlines for exactly that in recent times, as developments on the Italian island of Sardinia have cast a light over the major headway being made by the state in the world of the beautiful game.
April 9th 2017 is date which will not be of particular note to most people. And if anything, the mid-table Italian Serie A clash between Cagliari Calcio and Torino FC would not have been an event penned into the calendar. As the clock winded down on the game in question, Torino led 3-1 at the Sardegna Arena and were on their way to a credible away win. But for a country of over 25million people, this was the day that history was made, as with seconds left on the clock, an 18 year-old from Pyongyang rose up and headed a cross past English international Joe Hart to bag a consolation goal for I Rossoblu, becoming the first North Korean to a bag a goal in Serie A history in the process. Since then, Han Kwang Song has gone from strength to strength. Loaned out to Serie B club Perugia at the beginning of this season, Han made an immediate impression bagging a hat-trick on his debut before going on to record an impressive 7 goals over the first half of the campaign. Such was the impression he left, that Cagliari have elected to recall him for the second half of the Serie A campaign, and he is now a regular for the top-flight outfit.
So how does a North Korean teenager end up leading the line for an Italian football outfit? Largely, the move can be attributed to the political movements of controversial Italian politician Antonio Razzi. A former senator, Razzi claims to be good friends with Kim Jong Un, describing him as a “wonderful person”, and a moderate politician. Razzi has been making moves to foster relations with the country and has zoned in on football and music as avenues to establish common ground with the much-maligned east Asian state. Primarily, this has involved the creation of opportunities for promising North Korean footballers to come to Italy for training in the art of the beautiful game. Specifically, the ISM academy has been the destination for training, and Razzi personally requested for Han to come there after spotting him on a visit to Pyongyang in 2014.
In light of his remarkable progress in Italy, Han Kwang Song has begun to attract interest from the major players in European football, with Juventus, Tottenham and Liverpool all rumoured to have expressed an interest in acquiring his services. On the surface, the signing of this talented youngster should be a positive move for all parties considered. But unfortunately, a move for Han would be fraught with political implications. The main issue at present, is in relation to his wages. At present, it is claimed that the North Korean government implements a policy of seizing 90% of the wages received by overseas migrant workers. This has proven to be a valuable resource to the country, as hard currency becomes increasingly valuable to the regime due to trading sanctions that have been imposed upon them. This systematic exploitation of workers is thought to be primarily aimed at funding nuclear weapons programmes, with thousands of North Korean workers currently working in the Russian and Chinese mining and agricultural industries, as well as many reportedly based in Qatar, Poland and a dozen other EU countries. This form of slave labour has been condemned by the UN, with the security council looking to limit money flowing into North Korea, and it could be argued that Han is just another glorified member of this oppressed group. In his case, the massive wages he would be in line to earn should he move to a club of Juventus’ stature would be a major PR issue if it was found that they were directly aiding an oppressive regime.
Incidentally, this is not the first time that a North Korean footballer has been subject of such scrutiny. Choe Song Hyok, a former youth-team prospect at Italian side Fiorentina, was subject to an investigation by the Italian Government after enquiries were made regarding the nature of his contract. Ultimately, Fiorentina decided that he wasn’t worth the damage to the club’s reputation, and the player left the club shortly afterwards. Han however, could indeed be worth the trouble considering his ability, and Cagliari have publicly stated that the player’s nationality is irrelevant to them, claiming that they pay his wages directly into his bank account and that it is none of their business how he spends it. Han himself has claimed that no obligations have been placed on him in terms of how he spends his wages, but the influence of the North Korean government was clearly witnessed recently prior to a scheduled appearance Han was due to make on Italian television. Minutes prior to the interview, Han reportedly burst into tears after receiving a call from Pyongyang blocking him from appearing on the broadcast, and the show was subsequently cancelled.
All things considered, it is in the North Korean regime’s interest that the burgeoning career of Han Kwang Song continues to blossom. The recent investment in football by the country is thought to be a clear indication that the regime views football as a powerful propaganda tool to change perceptions of the country globally. Currently, the North Korean national team finds itself ranked a lowly 119th in the world, having achieved modest levels of success in Asian competitions in recent times, with 3rd and 4th places finishes in the 2015 and 2017 East Asian Cup competitions respectively. This is unlikely to be the case for much longer if talents such as Hans’ continue to be cultivated, and the player could serve as a trailblazer for young footballer’s in his homeland if the aforementioned obstacles can be overcome. Will we be seeing Han Kwang Song gracing the fields of the Champions League in years to come? Only time will tell. But one would hope that the footballing authorities will see this case for what it is: a young man with a dream, and talent in abundance. Talents far exceeding that of the man with the bad haircut who controls his fate.
Chris Foley – Sports Editor