It was funny, was Portugal's 7-0 thrashing of North Korea on that rainy afternoon in Cape Town's Green Point Stadium on June 21, until it was not.
As Portugal began its onslaught in earnest, turning a slim 1-0 halftime lead into a commanding 4-0 one between the 53rd and 60th minutes, fans in the stands began to joke about how this could be happening to Kim Jong-il's side, and what might become of them. Perhaps the invisible phone with which the so-called Dear Leader supposedly used to impart tactical advice upon his coach and players had malfunctioned. People wondered if the Chinese actors that North Korea had reportedly hired to serve as their fans could possibly have the chops for this particular task. Perhaps the North Korean team for its final group stage match (which turned out to be a 3-0 loss to the Ivory Coast, completing a winless World Cup run in which it the Chollima were outscored 12-1) would consist of suspiciously Brazilian-looking fellows with North Korean nameplates on their backs.
As the goals kept coming, however, and the overmatched North Koreans kept valiantly rushing to midfield for another kickoff that they had to know would only lead to the deepening of their embarrassment, the tone in the stadium turned strangely somber. It was almost as if people sensed that they were watching poorly-performing latter day gladiators, their fate to be decided by the capricious thumb of an emperor back in Pyongyang. Fans started fearing for -- not joking about -- the North Korean side's future.
Reports that last week emerged from the South Korean media and Radio Free Asia suggest that those fears were justified. Sources told the latter organization that on July 2, just three days after the team returned home, its coaches and players were summoned to an auditorium in Pyongyang and subjected to a public shaming, six hours in length, on a stage in front of 400 people, including various ministers, athletes and university students. The players were "subjected to a session of harsh ideological criticism," a Chinese businessman said, and a sports commentator named Ri Dong-kyu was called upon to identify each of their failings, one-by-by. Only the team's two Japanese-born players, Jong Tae-se and An Yong-hak, were exempt from the session.
The further punishment that the players might have received, disturbingly, remains unknown, but it seems as if head coach Kim Jung-hun might have gotten the worst of it. He was apparently accused of "betraying the Young Gen. Kim Jong-un" -- Kim Jong-il's third son, and heir apparent. "There are rumors that coach Kim Jung-hun has been expelled from the Worker's Party, or that he has been sent to perform forced labor at a residential building construction site in Pyongyang, but such rumors are hard to verify," a source told RFA.
We must, of course, view such reports out of the world's most walled-off nation -- filled, as they are, with unnamed sources and rumors and lacking any firm confirmation -- with a critical eye. But it is clear that FIFA, which already acted morally questionably by forbidding the international press to ask the North Korean side any questions that were deemed "political" in nature, however tangentially so (such as whether their games were being broadcast at home), must act quickly and decisively in response to them.
This is not a time for Sepp Blatter's trademark stubbornness and intransigence. We are not talking about something as relatively insignificant as questionable officiating, or whether or not to implement the use of goal line technology. This might, quite literally, be a matter of life or death, or at the least one of human rights abuses of varying degrees. FIFA must demand that North Korea, to be eligible for continuing membership in the organization, permit a full investigation of the government's actions vis-à-vis its coaches and players after South Africa's World Cup. If it is found that North Korea did what was reported it did, the country must be subjected to an indefinite ban from international play. Complacency here would represent an inexcusable moral failing by FIFA, and the international sporting community.
The reported North Korean actions, perhaps least, might also lead to a competitive issue. It is not difficult to imagine that in the future, opposing players -- however subconsciously or unintentionally, and however slightly -- might be inclined to ease up on North Korea, if they sense that the significance of a loss for them might be impossibly worse than would the joy of a win for themselves.
It is somewhat striking that North Korea made its first World Cup appearance in 44 years -- however brief and inauspicious it was -- in South Africa. South Africa was, after all, banned from Olympic competition between 1964 and 1992 due to its abhorrent apartheid policies, and only permitted back into the international sporting community once apartheid had been dismantled. This summer's joyous and accomplished World Cup represented a striking symbol of just how quickly, and how significantly, things can change within a country, and the sporting world's boycott of South Africa had at least something to do with that change.
We can talk all we want about respecting other nations' systems and cultures -- and critics could undoubtedly point to certain actions committed by any nation on earth (including the United States) and argue that those actions ought to disqualify it from international competition, too -- but what North Korea has reportedly done to its coaches and players is simply so blatant, so offensive, and so contradictory to the spirit of international athletic competition (FIFA's motto: "For the Game. For the World") that steps must be taken, and must be taken immediately, to address it.
The first step, of course, is to determine what, exactly, happened when the Chollima returned to Pyongyang. This will be no easy task, if not an impossible one; but FIFA must try. The second step, if the reports we have are confirmed, or if North Korea refuses to comply with an investigation, is to ensure that whatever happened will never happen again, even if it means that the nation's second-ever World Cup will constitute its last for the foreseeable future.