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Dec 29, 2011

North Korea's bright young things

Alan Hansen may have a few things to say if he saw what was going on in North Korea as youth looks like it is going to gets its chance on and off the pitch. Kim Jong-Il died earlier this month to leave the path clear for his son Kim Jong-Un to take the country's seat of power. The same thing is happening at the national team level and more and more of the old guard are stepping aside. Not only that, like the Swiss-educated, newly-crowned DPRK dictator, the footballers are also going to get a good deal more international experience.

For the country and the region, the death of the Dear Leader is set to be a turning point; in football terms, though, that came at the 2010 World Cup. Not long before that, his son became the heir apparent to the world's only communist hereditary monarchy. Not long after, he was nominally in charge of making sure that the nation didn't wait another 44 years for a place on the global stage. If that was quite a responsibility for the young basketball fan - his father was thought to be keener on football and visited training during past qualification games to pass on tips - it is nothing compared to what he has on his plate now.

Just as there have been small signs of the North Korean economy starting to open up, changes in the way the nation approaches football were evident before Kim's death. South Africa marked the first time in years that DPRK made headlines for the same, normal reasons as other nations do.

Before the game against Brazil, there was talk from the South Americans' army of Globo media network reporters that the game would finish with the Selecao six or seven goals to the good. Temperatures in Johannesburg that night felt six or seven below but, by half-time, the shivering scribes were worried. At full-time, they were full of respect and admiration for the little-known opposition.

The subsequent thrashing at the hands of Portugal brought the team back down to earth - though there is no actual evidence to suggest that it caused coach Kim Jong-Hun a spell in the labour camp as was reported - and the loss against Ivory Coast was also a little disappointing, but it reinforced the idea that to compete on the international stage, North Korea had to spend more time on it.

The likes of Jong Tae-Se, An Yong-Hak and Ryang Yong-Gi had been born and raised in Japan and can play anywhere they want, but the regime now wants those who hail from Pyongyang, Hamhung and Kaesong to also go forth. That was one of the reasons the whole football administration scene was reorganised in 2010. The DPR Korea Football Association was split into two: the international half was put under the control of the military; heading this new department was the newly-appointed four-star general Kim Jong-Un.

In the old days, the country's ruling Korean Workers' Party had most of the responsibility for how football was run and this could be frustrating - as I discovered in 2005 when requesting a media pass for a World Cup qualifier. Through contacts at the DPRK FA, I was able to talk to the right people and get the application approved. It was, however, vetoed by the government. The reason behind the decision, I was told, was because I had never visited the country before (the regular tour groups that run out of Beijing don't count). If I wanted to visit in the future then it would be best to build trust with the authorities first. How to build trust? Well, the answer came back, the best way to do that is to visit.

The military being involved helps things along a little, but that is not to say headaches are a thing of the past. In 2010, Denmark second-tier club FC Vestsjaelland signed two young North Koreans in Ri Myong-Jun and Jong Il-Ju. Then-coach Michael Schjonberg told local media that importing exotic animals would involve less paperwork and stress. There are a couple more players based in Switzerland, with Pak Kwang-Ryong settling in well with FC Basel, league leaders and eliminators of Manchester United in the Champions League. Just 19, he is highly-rated.

A few players in leagues such as Switzerland and Denmark may not sound like much but is a huge step for the nation and discussions are taking place to send more players to Europe in the summer. Juche, North Korea's ideology of self-sufficiency, may be a valued part of DPRK vocabulary but it is as ineffective on the football pitch as anywhere else.

Isolation is far from splendid (though it does mean that the domestic league still has ten-minute half-times) when other teams won't visit Pyongyang for friendlies as they have to pay their own way (Nigeria quickly cancelled in 2010 upon learning this) and North Korean clubs don't play in overseas competitions.

Unfortunately, the biggest competition in the world is already off limits for 2014. Three 1-0 defeats in qualification - the binary-obsessed team won the other two matches by the same scoreline - mean that reaching Brazil is now out of the question. Earlier this month I talked to An Yong-Hak, the mainstay of the team's midfield for the best part of a decade, and he said the reason the team failed during qualification is the reason there is hope for the future, though he said that he will now step aside.

"After the World Cup in South Africa, we brought in a lot of new players," An explained. "Around half the team was changed and five or six young players joined the team. The problem we had was just one of preparation. We didn't have enough time to prepare and get our teamwork up to scratch. All the new players are very good, but we just needed more time to play together. We have many young players now on the national team. They are very good and there is a bright future for the team."

As well as the Swiss-based Pak, there are high hopes for other teenagers such as Jong Il-Kwan, Han Sung-Hyok and Kang Il-Nam.

Those three play for leading team April 25. The army club is expected in the south soon for a friendly and, coming soon after the death of Kim, it will be a meaningful visit. There is still no chance of such players heading to the south to play in the K-league just yet, however. There have been suggestions and talks in the past, with Incheon United and Jeonbuk Motors showing interest, but nothing is going to happen in that regard before Lee Myung-Bak, the conservative president in Seoul, steps down from power early in 2013.

Much can happen before that. A week is a long time in football and a lifetime in politics. If Kim Jong-Un didn't know that before, he does now.

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