Via The Economist, a look at North Korea’s women’s football team which is an explosive propaganda tool:

George Orwell — who is too good a source of aphorisms to worry about their truth—once opined that sport was “war minus the shooting”. This provides a lens through which to view the footballing rivalry between North and South Korea. In men’s football, as in conventional weaponry, the South has the more impressive force. Its team have won seven of their 17 encounters and lost only one. But in women’s football, as in weapons of mass destruction, it is the North who dominate. Of the 20 matches they have played against the South, North Korea’s women have won 16, occasionally dishing out 7-0 drubbings. South Korea boast a lone victory.

When the two teams meet in an Olympic qualifier on October 29th, North Korea’s women will have yet another chance to live up to their nickname, “Cheollima”, a mythical horse that can bound 1,000 ri (400km) in a single day. (It is also a favourite trope of North Korean propaganda, used to exhort citizens to Stakhanovite feats of self-sacrifice.) They will be full of confidence. Not only did they blow away South Korea 4-1 four weeks ago in the quarter-finals of the Asian Games. They have also won gold medals at three previous editions of that tournament and silver medals at three others.

Intimidating firepower is not the only way the team reflect the country they represent. If the North Korean women bring home the samgyeopsal (pork belly), while the men fail to provide, they are sharing a gripe heard from many other women in the country.

North Korean men are assigned state-allocated jobs. They must show up even if there is no work to be done and often won’t get paid. Married women, on the other hand, face no such requirement. They can make better money trading in the markets that blossomed after the centrally planned economy collapsed in the 1990s. Not that this economic power buys them respect. Despite claiming to have eliminated sexism, North Korea remains a deeply patriarchal society. Women won most of North Korea’s medals at the Asian Games in September, but the country’s only male gold medallist carried the flag at the closing ceremony.

Naturally, the regime will still exploit its female athletes for propaganda. When the women’s football team won the East Asian Football Federation’s top prize in 2015, they were treated to a parade and a personal letter from Kim Jong Un, the country’s dictator. He chalked up their victory to the “offence strategy that our Party develops” and offered them “a militaristic salute”, making it clear that their victory, like everything in North Korea, actually belonged to him. After all, football is a family passion—Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, once called it the “foundation of all athletics”. The Kims have been investing in the women’s game since the 1980s, for example by building a huge academy in Pyongyang, the capital, that identifies talented players early and then relentlessly drills technique into them.

As with failed rocket tests, North Korean propagandists are much quieter when the national team lose, especially if it is to a hated enemy. Though state media vociferously praised a wrestler who bundled over her opponent from Japan to win gold at the Asian Games, it noted the silver medal won by the women’s football team without mentioning that the gold went to none other than the Koreans’ former colonial oppressor.

The North Korean women’s team—not unlike the men in charge of the country’s nuclear-weapons programme—have had the occasional difficulty sticking to the rules. In 2011 they were banned from the 2015 World Cup after several players failed steroid tests. In keeping with the country’s flair for generating bizarre headlines, the explanation offered was that some members of the team had been struck by lightning and then treated with medicine made from deer musk glands. All of which resulted in this supposed false positive result.

Yet North Korean women’s football is hardly all tales of foul play. If the team reflect the country as it is now, one former player represents a possible future. Ri Hyang Ok represented North Korea in two World Cups before becoming a referee and officiating in two more, supported by assistants from both North and South Korea. Ms Ri’s country should learn from her example, play by the rules, and get on better with its neighbour. If it did that, who knows, it might start to prosper. Unfortunately, such a future is far more than 1,000 ri away.


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