United Koreans in Japan
The inspirational tale of a Korean team at the CONIFA World Cup
Forget Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s historic handshake, the quest to broker lasting peace between North and South Korea has been kick-started by the United Koreans in Japan, and their attempt to win the CONIFA World Cup
It’s probably the first time Fourfourtwo have been given photographic direction by a North Korean, but the big smile on An Yong-hak’s face is a welcoming one. Eight years ago, he was in South Africa taking on Robinho, Cristiano Ronaldo and Dider Drogba at the 2010 World Cup. Today, the 39-year-old is in Slough on a very different mission.
He is the player-manager of the United Koreans in Japan team at the 2018 CONIFA World Cup, a tournament created for minorities and stateless regions across the globe. His side consists of both North and South Koreans playing together in harmony – despite the countries technically remaining at war – as they emerge from the tunnel on this early June afternoon.
It’s 27C as the sun beats down at Slough Town’s Arbour Park, while the players prepare to start their warm-up for their third group game against Panjab, a Uk-based outfit representing the Punjabi diaspora. Held in and around London, the 2018 CONIFA World Cup features 16 teams that include Tibet, Tuvalu, Northern Cyprus, a Matabeleland squad boasting 60-year-old goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, and hosts Barawa, who represent the Somali diaspora in England. They even got Right Said Fred to sing the official tournament song, which when you consider FIFA drafted in Fresh Prince of Bel Air star Will Smith for their competition’s ditty, doesn’t seem particularly outdated.
The United Koreans in Japan were formed in unlikely circumstances, after Japanese journalist Motoko Jitsukawa travelled to Sweden in 2014 to cover the inaugural CONIFA World Cup.
“I thought a United Koreans team would be really suitable for that tournament,” she tells Fourfourtwo. Jitsukawa is now a part of the team’s delegation. More than 850,000 Koreans currently live in Japan – a sizeable number as a result of the Second World War, when Japan ruled Korea and moved many to the mainland as civilian labour. More moved to escape the Korean War years later. Koreans in Japan were known as Zainichi Koreans, and set up their own football club in 1961.
“GET SOME GOOD PICTURES, WE ARE HANDSOME GUYS!”
Initially the club had links to a pro-north Korean organisation, although those links were severed in 2002 when relations between North Korea and Japan nosedived, after North Korea admitted abducting a number of Japanese citizens throughout the 1970s and ’80s. The football club, based in Tokyo and playing matches in Japan’s regional leagues, were renamed FC Korea.
“When I came back from Sweden, I talked to FC Korea and the coach was interested in the idea,” says Jitsukawa. “United Koreans in Japan applied for CONIFA membership and earned the right to participate in the 2016 World Cup.”
Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia, was the venue for the last World Cup. Asked to choose an anthem, the players opted for the one used by the unified Korea in the early 20th century. “That was one of the most emotional times for me,” she says. “I’m not Zainichi Korean, I’m Japanese, but when I heard the anthem before the first match in Abkhazia, I was on the verge of tears.
“There is discrimination against Koreans in Japan. Children can’t go to Japanese schools. In Tokyo there can be hate speech in the street, people saying, ‘Kill them!’ or ‘Get out of Japan!’ Four years ago there was a very sad incident at Urawa Red Diamonds, the biggest football club in Japan. At the stadium, some of the fans put a sign up saying, ‘Japanese only’. It was aimed at all of the Zainichi Korean players and I was so angry about it.”
When United Koreans in Japan qualified for this summer’s CONIFA World Cup – thanks to a 9-0 thrashing of Ryukyu, a group of Japanese islands – a decision was taken to invite An Yong-hak to be the team’s ambassador. Born and raised in Japan, before collecting 37 caps for North Korea and even playing club football in South Korea for a spell, he was seen as the perfect man for the job. Not only did he agree to be an ambassador, he soon took on the role of managing the team – and even volunteered to come out of retirement and play.
“North Korea, South Korea and Japan are very important to me,” he tells FFT. “I regard all of them as my motherland. I was impressed by the spirit of CONIFA – it is a bridge between different people all over the world. That’s why I wanted to join this team, and I’m very proud that I’m able to say I’ve played at both the FIFA World Cup and the CONIFA World Cup.”
Indeed, he’s the first person to have played in both versions of the World Cup. “They’re very different!” he laughs. This time his team are staying in student accommodation in Colindale, north London, paid for by CONIFA. Just finding the sponsorship money to fly the squad in from Japan was a challenge. “The level of football is not the same in this competition but the motivation to do well is no different,” he adds. “Both tournaments are important to me.”
Yong-hak started all three games at the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when North Korea were placed in a daunting group with Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast. North Korea were stuffed 7-0 by Portugal and beaten 3-0 by Ivory Coast, but creditably only lost 2-1 to five-time winners Brazil in their opener. Despite three straight defeats, the experience is one Yong-hak will never forget. “It was amazing!” he exclaims. “Since my childhood, I watched videos of the World Cup and dreamed of being there some day. My dream came true.”
As we ask the next question, we wonder whether the conversation is about to get slightly awkward. Those reports about the 2010 squad and coaching staff being punished after returning to North Korea with zero points: were they true?
Unexpectedly, he responds by bursting into laughter. “I have been asked about this at least 300 times. In the newspapers I’ve seen that the players or the coaches were sent to the mine to do very hard work. But it’s not true, and the goalkeeper who conceded the seven goals against Portugal is still the goalkeeper of the national team today. If he’d worked in the mine, his hands certainly wouldn’t be in the right state to play in goal any more! It’s a rumour and everyone asks about it, but it’s not true. Everybody thinks North Korea is an awful country, but the reality is very different. Please visit Pyongyang one day and see it with your own eyes.”
North Korea’s record on the football field has rarely matched that of South Korea, but the passion for the game remains strong – even from the country’s leader. “Kim Jong-un is a great lover of football,” insists Yong-hak. “He has strengthened North Korean football.”
The United Koreans in Japan relied heavily on players from FC Korea at the 2016 CONIFA World Cup. So when Yong-hak became manager, he immediately started phoning other talented Zainichi Koreans he knew and invited them to join his squad. “We said yes,” smiles team captain Son Min-cheol. “I can still remember watching him play at the 2010 World Cup – Zainichi Koreans were really excited to see him play against teams like Brazil and Portugal. He’s a legend of Korea, so when he called me, I had to go and play for him.”
Min-cheol plays for Lee Man FC in the Hong Kong Premier League but grew up in Kyoto, Japan. “My grandfather was born in Korea and he moved during the Second World War,” says the centre-back. “I played for North Korea Under-23s and joined the training camp for the senior team too, but unfortunately I didn’t play. I lost a huge opportunity but never got down about it. That experience gave me energy.”
He used that energy to ensure success in club football in India and Thailand, although his travels required him to swap his North Korean passport for a South Korean one.
“I wanted to get experience and see the world, but if I had kept my North Korean passport it would have been difficult to move,” he says.
“NORTH KOREA, SOUTH KOREA AND JAPAN ARE SO IMPORTANT TO ME. THEY’RE ALL MY MOTHERLAND. CONIFA IS A BRIDGE BETWEEN DIFFERENT PEOPLE ALL OVER THE WORLD”
“I discussed it with my mother and told her I wanted to change from a North Korean passport to a South Korean passport, and she agreed. I changed two years ago, but it’s not a big difference – it’s just a card. I’m a Japanese-born North Korean.”
While the manager and the captain of the United Koreans in Japan team identify themselves as North Korean, the majority of the squad have South Korean passports – although in many cases, their families actually left Korea while it was still one country, not two.
Min-cheol hopes that it will return to being one country in the future. Recent talks, including meetings between Kim Jong-un and the South Korean president Moon Jae-in, have given him optimism. “When they shook hands at the border line of North Korea and South Korea, it was a beautiful moment, amazing,” he says. “I saw that and felt so much confidence that we can be one country again. I hope it will happen – we’ve been divided for many years.”
Yong-hak concurs. “In the near future, we believe we will be united. We all hope for peace, not a divide.”
Now 31 and nearing the end of his playing career, Min-cheol is asked about his ambitions. We expect an answer about football, but that’s not what we get. “People have told me I should get married!” he says, prompting a swift intervention from his boss. “Difficult, very difficult, dream don’t come true!” smiles Yong-hak in broken English, sparking fits of laughter between the pair before Min-cheol continues on a more serious note. “But I really want to help the young players in this team,” he says. “Eighty per cent of our players are under the age of 25. Both An and myself want to help them.”
Among those young players are 20-year-old defender Kang Yoo-jun, a South Korean currently playing for Monroe Mustangs in the USA, and 19-year-old Lee Tong-soung, who moved to England earlier this year. He starts a degree at Loughborough University in September, having recently been on the books of non-league side Staines Town.
“Unfortunately I got injured so I couldn’t play a lot, but I came here to study abroad and also play some football,” Tong-soung tells FFT. “An Yong-hak called and invited me to this competition. I respect him so I was very happy – also because my older brother is in the squad too, and I’d never played with him before. I’d like to be a professional footballer. I’m already 19, so I might have to think about another way, but this tournament is a big chance for me.”
Several players from today’s opponents, Panjab, earned trials with Notts County after reaching the final of the 2016 CONIFA World Cup. As both squads begin their warm-up, spectators have already started drifting through the turnstiles at the 2,000-capacity Arbour Park, some stopping at the makeshift merchandise stall selling CONIFA T-shirts from a rack. The crowd will reach around 500 by kick-off, pretty much filling the main stand, and the majority are cheering on Panjab, whose squad features players almost exclusively from England’s non-league system. However, a number of curious locals are also venturing in to see what this tournament is all about.
The PA system isn’t quite on a par with the FIFA World Cup. Random screeching noises from the speakers are interspersed with the official announcement of the line-ups. “Please be aware that there might be a few pronounciation [sic] issues, but we’ll do our best,” says the guy behind the mic. “We’ll give you the line-ups again before the national anthems, for those of you who, er, aren’t here, basically…”
The United Koreans in Japan head back into the dressing room for the team talk, which prompts an enthusiastic roar from the players, then a huddle. Their first two group games – against Western Armenia and little-fancied Algerian side Kabylia – had ended 0-0, so their task today is straightforward. Win and they progress to the quarter-finals, anything less and they are out – consigned to third place in the group behind Western Armenia and Panjab.
Such is the tight schedule of the tournament that this is their third match in just four days. If that was already going to be a tough ask for 39-year-old player-boss Yong-hak, he is ruled out of the crunch clash after injuring his arm the previous day against Kabylia. Is it broken, we ask him? “Maybe,” he says, promising that he’ll go to hospital to have it checked out later that evening.
The teams are soon out on the pitch for the national anthems, played tinnily over the stadium speakers. The turban-wearing chairman of the Panjab FA, Harpreet Singh, is a lone voice in the main stand – belting out the Panjab anthem loudly and proudly. A man rushes down to the front of the stand parading a North Korean flag when it’s time for the United Koreans in Japan anthem, which cuts out halfway through due to interference over the PA system. Unsure what’s going on, some of the crowd laugh, while others applaud thinking the anthem is finished. But the music soon comes back on and everyone returns to standing solemnly for another 30 seconds.
FFT grab a word with the owner of the North Korean flag. “What’s your angle?” he asks warily at first. We explain we’re only here to write about the team he’s cheering on. “Ah OK, it’s just that I’m a bit pissed,” admits John Bonfield, a Spurs fan who’s spent the last hour at the bar. “I’m simply someone who went to North Korea a couple of years ago, had a great time there, met some really nice people and thought I’d come down and support them today. I do a lot of travelling to some weird places, like Nagorno-karabakh, who played in a previous CONIFA World Cup. I sometimes go to random matches too, like the Bosnian fifth division. When I heard that this World Cup was in London, I was always interested in coming.
“The amusing thing was we arrived early today and someone with the United Koreans in Japan team dragged me into the dressing room and they gave me a round of applause for my T-shirt, which has the symbol of North Korea on it. I brought out my North Korean flag after that and they went mental, they absolutely loved it. The manager even took me to meet his mother. They asked me what my favourite thing about North Korea was – I said the beer!”
“I GOT DRAGGED INTO THE UNITED KOREANS’ DRESSING ROOM AND THEY GAVE ME A ROUND OF APPLAUSE FOR MY T-SHIRT – THEN THE MANAGER TOOK ME TO MEET HIS MOTHER!”
Chasing victory, the United Koreans in Japan don’t start the game too well: within 75 seconds, they concede a penalty. Panjab’s Gurjit Singh, a forward with Midlands outfit Rushall Olympic, decides this is a perfect time to attempt a Panenka. He’s wrong. Goalkeeper Shim Woo-dae dives but still has time to flick a leg into the air and keep out the chipped spot-kick, much to Singh’s embarrassment. The score remains 0-0. With an ice pack on his arm and unable to play for the first time in this tournament, manager Yong-hak spends the first half shouting instructions non-stop at the top of his voice. Opposite number Reuben Hazell, the former Tranmere, Chesterfield and Oldham defender who’s agreed to lend his experience to help Panjab, is a little quieter. A drummer is orchestrating Panjab’s fans, before an ice cream van turns up and parks close to the pitch, hoping for trade. It isn’t like this at the FIFA World Cup. The PA system soon screeches back into life. “This is a message for the owner of a silver Mercedes: you’ve left your windows open.” Both sides start to tire in their second match in as many days. In an event that often produces goals galore, United Koreans are on course for a third successive stalemate until Isle of Man referee David Murphy awards Panjab a second penalty with 13 minutes remaining. This time West Auckland Town forward Amar Purewal steps up to take it.
His strike in the 2016 CONIFA World Cup Final earned him headlines as the first Briton to score in a senior World Cup final since Geoff Hurst, and he makes no mistake to put Panjab 1-0 up. The United Koreans now need two late goals to qualify.
It looks like they’re exiting the competition without scoring a single goal, until the 95th minute, when Mun Su-hyeon swivels outside the box and thunders the ball into the top corner from 20 yards. Spurs fan John celebrates wildly with his North Korea flag and Yong-hak races onto the pitch, temporarily forgetting his injured arm to hug the scorer.
“UKJ! UKJ!” can be heard in the main stand – some of the locals are joining in for the hell of it, including one who’d been chanting “Panjab! Panjab!” minutes earlier. With injury time still not over, there’s brief hope that the United Koreans can get the second goal they need, to the agitation of Panjab fans. “Come on ref, you’re having a laugh! Are you playing another half? Blow your whistle!” one yells from the back of the stand. Soon the referee does just that, to the devastation of the United Koreans. Some sit disconsolately and others burst into tears, all while the chimes of the ice cream van go off in the background.
It’s clear the heartbroken players aren’t in the mood for a Cornetto as they return the applause of a sympathetic crowd. Their hopes of World Cup glory may be over, but they still have three games to play as part of the placement rounds for the teams eliminated in the group stage.
“We’re disappointed, but I’m proud of the players,” says Yong-hak. “They never gave up. It’s a success for us just to be here and they will gain so much experience – they’re the future of the Zainichi Koreans.”
Captain Min-cheol agrees. “Some players are crying but I’ve said they have to remember today. We showed the world our fighting spirit.”
As much as the United Koreans in Japan dreamed of winning the World Cup, their participation was about much more than just results. It was about giving a community a voice, about the togetherness of two nations at war, and most of all about hope.
Whether Korea will be unified again, only time will tell. But this team has proved that if there’s a will, political differences can be overcome. That in pursuit of a common goal, North and South Koreans are able to work alongside each other in harmony.
On the football field at least, they are already united.
Below and left Kim Sun-ji gets to grips with United Koreans team-mate Choi Gwang-yeon; the tactics board proves a headache for poor Byun Yeong-jang Above left Son Min-cheol prepares to lead the team out at Slough; ex-staines man Lee Tong-soung is all...
Right Hong Yun-guk gets a cross in against Panjab, but despite the constant urgings of their manager An Yong-hak (below right) and some eager support in the stands, the United Koreans couldn’t progress