About North Korea emerges for Asian Games
|December 11th, 2006||#1|
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North Korea emerges for Asian Games info
DOHA, Qatar - South Korea's cheering section, like most at the Asian Games, was a ragtag collection of off-duty athletes and officials, relatives and die-hard fans willing to make the 12-hour trip to this tiny country on the Persian Gulf to see their team play.
North Korea brought out the pros.
Seemingly materializing out of nowhere, hundreds of men in dark gray suits filled their section of the stadium for a soccer game against South Korea, clapping and singing in unison and roaring whenever their players got the ball. As soon as the game was over, they vanished just as quickly as they had arrived.
For North Korea, impoverished and increasingly isolated after conducting its first nuclear test just two months ago, the Asian Games isn't just about sports.
It's a chance to win a gold for the "Dear Leader" - Kim Jong Il.
"We dedicate everything, our participation and any medals we win, to our nation and our leader," said Ri Kyong Hui, captain of the North Korean softball team. "Without him, there is nothing."
The Asian Games mark something of a return to the international stage for North Korea after its Oct. 9 nuclear test, which prompted tough sanctions from the U.N. Security Council that have further cut off Kim's almost hermetically sealed regime.
The North is going all out to make a mark, with teams in everything from archery to wushu, a Chinese martial art. All told, the North has 162 athletes here.
So far, they haven't had much to cheer about. Ten days into the 15-day competition, the North had won just five gold medals - in gymnastics, shooting and judo. South Korea, meanwhile, had won 28.
But that's just part of the story.
In an effort to show that its nuclear test hasn't alienated its neighbors to the South, the North lobbied intensely for both teams to march into the opening ceremonies at Doha together under a "unification flag." South Korean officials said the plan was nearly scuttled several times, but they acquiesced at the last minute. A South Korean basketball player and a North Korean soccer player carried the flag.
Winning over the South for the North's concept of forming a joint team for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing has proven more difficult.
South Korean Olympic officials say a flurry of talks with their North Korean counterparts here last week stalled over the North's demand that it get equal representation on any unified Olympic team - especially for soccer.
North and South Korea have an intense rivalry on the soccer pitch, and choosing a team for the high-profile event involves the difficult task of selecting, mixing and coordinating the players, while avoiding a loss of face for either side.
After his team lost to the South 3-0 on Saturday, North Korean coach Ri Jong Man said he hoped to see a unified team with an equal number of players from each Korea, but with the starters chosen on the basis of skill.
"I think this would be a great opportunity for both of us," he said.
North Korea's desire to avoid incident was written all over Saturday's game.
About 400 well-practiced North Koreans turned out to cheer on their team - quite a feat considering there is a negligible population of North Koreans on hand in Qatar - and quickly commenced chanting and clapping. They came equipped with big brass cymbals, drums and a half-dozen North Korean flags that never stopped waving.
Last year, a less-select throng of North Korean fans rioted at a World Cup qualifier with Iran that was held in the North's capital of Pyongyang, throwing bottles and rocks onto the field and forcing the Iranians and match officials to take shelter in the stadium until police and soldiers quelled the violence.
The riot prompted the governing body of soccer to relocate a match with Japan that was to be held in Pyongyang to neutral Bangkok.
There were to be no such surprises here in Doha - the cheering section kept politely in their seats, and kept their chants strictly apolitical.
"Let's win," they cheered. "Go offense."
At Sunday's softball game, however, Kim was back at the top of the cheers.
The official cheering section wasn't called in, so the team took it on themselves, adding to the usual dugout banter a repertoire of songs dedicated not to winning, but to the "Dear Leader."
"May you live 10,000 years," the team sang repeatedly throughout the game.