Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Could football be a key to uniting the Koreas?

JoongAng Daily reports shouts of “Joguktongil” (Korean for “Unification of Korea!”) were ringing out at the Kumgang bar in Yeongdeungpo (Seoul) on Monday night in support of the North Korean team taking on Portugal at the 2010 World Cup. The crowd was made up of North Korean defectors and their families and colleagues, all of whom had come to root for the North in its first World Cup outing in 44 years. “Urineunhana!” (“We are one!”) they shouted.

The rooters laid the emphasis on “we” and “unification” partly out of consideration for the national security law, and fear that their new home, South Korea, might view support of North Korea - even its flag - as illegal activity benefitting the enemy. And extra caution is needed these days, said the men who organized the cheering rally, as the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan has aroused hostility toward the North.

But the words were also chosen to show the hearts of the defectors, now divided equally between the land they turned their backs on in despair and the one they once considered an enemy and now call home.

Hasar Choi, a 37-year-old North Korean defector, said he fled his home in North Hamgyong in 2001, leaving behind his parents and three younger siblings. Choi said, “I hate its leaders and politicians, but I don’t hate the country itself.”

Jeong Eui-seong, 32, the owner of the bar, said many thoughts crossed his mind as he watched the game. “Considering the unfair treatment that I suffered there, I should think they [North Korea] deserve to lose, but I don’t,” Jeong said. “I’m just sorry that they are losing that way. It’s hurting.”

“I was hoping that if the two Koreas got into the round of 16 together it might help ease the tension between them, but now that’s impossible,” said Jeong Hyo-jin, one of Choi’s South Korean colleagues, after the game. But even in defeat, the defectors showed how much they’ve taken their new home to heart. “I pray now that South Korea will avenge North Korea by beating Nigeria,” Jeong said.

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