North Korea's Rooney Loves His Cars, Clothes and Rap
By Jean H. Lee
June 14, 2010
Tembisa, South Africa
He plays like Rooney but behaves a little like Beckham. He loves his cars, his rap music and his clothes, and changes hairstyles more often than you can say "Kim Jong Il."
North Korea striker Jong Tae Se is not your average North Korean.
Born and raised in Japan, the 26-year-old forward has never lived in communist North Korea, and says he has no plans to. He loves to shop, snowboard and dreams of marrying a Korean Posh Spice none of which would be possible in the impoverished North, one of the most isolated countries in the world.
Still, he wears the Democratic People's Republic of Korea jersey with pride, and is moved to tears when he hears the country's anthem. The boy from Nagoya could become North Korea's biggest international soccer star since Pak Doo Ik scored the goal that knocked Italy out of the World Cup in 1966.
"He is Japanese but isn't a Japanese, he is Korean but is playing on the North Korean squad, he is a North Korean national but lives in Japan all these things are very difficult for the world to understand," Shin Mu Koeng, a friend of Jong's and his biographer, said in an interview Monday from Tokyo.
North Korea is back in the World Cup for the first time in 44 years. They were the mystery team in 1966, and they're the mystery team in 2010. Very little is known about the North Koreans, a team mostly made up of sheltered players in their early 20s with limited international experience.
To say Jong stands out is an understatement.
Witty and personable, with a dazzling smile, cheeky personality and talent for making goals, he gives lowest-ranked North Korea a bit of star power as they face teams from Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast stacked with big names.
On the field, Jong is fast and aggressive, North Korea's leading scorer with 16 goals in 24 international matches. His impressive play has earned him comparisons to England's Wayne Rooneyamong South Korean media.
He collects sneakers and considers himself a bit of a fashion hound. Last Wednesday, he was sporting gelled hair. By Thursday he had shaved it all off. He's also not shy about admitting that he cried like a baby watching South Korea's most famous soap opera, "Winter Sonata."
This is how he sees himself in five years: driving a blinged-out car, with a pop star on his arm like one of the singers from the Wondergirls South Korea's version of the Spice Girls. Oh yes, and playing for a big-name club in Europe.
Jong could have played in South Korea or Japan, but he chose North Korea.
Born in Nagoya to an ethnic Korean family, he inherited his father's South Korean citizenship but was raised and schooled in his mother's pro-North Korean community.
He is among Japan's nearly 600,000 "zainichi," ethnic Koreans who live in Japan as long-term residents, many of them third- and fourth-generation descendants of laborers or conscripts who have lived there since Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea.
Their first language may be Japanese, but Jong and midfielder An Yong Hak were raised within the zainichi community, attending Korean-language schools and pledging allegiance to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung and current leader Kim Jong Il. Jong, eager to play for North Korea, renounced his South Korean passport and became a citizen of North Korea.
Still, while he may be North Korean on paper, Jong's zainichi background sets him apart from most of his teammates. He says he never travels without his iPod, laptop and Nintendo, much to the curiosity of players from a country with only one state-run TV channel and where such luxuries are reserved for top officials.
Their games are simple: rock, scissors and paper are enough to send them into fits of shouts and laughter, he says. Teammates flock to his room during overseas matches, asking to listen to his music, play Super Mario, borrow his books or fluorescent Nike running shoes and hear about life in the J-League including how much money he makes.
"Tae Se worried a lot about the difference in background," said Shin, who has known Jong since elementary school. "The North Korean team lacks a lot of the equipment and the infrastructure that Jong's been used to, as a J-League player" for Japan's Kawasaki Frontale.
He's developed a close bond with An, who now plays for Omiya Ardija in Japan but has also played for the South Korean club Suwon Bluewings.
But Jong has said he admires his North Korean teammates' passion for soccer, and noted that they are largely indifferent to money and materialism.
"He had many doubts, but as he trained with the North Korean players, he saw their pureness," said Shin, whose biography about Jong was released in South Korea and Japan. "They never complained about the inadequacies and they did their absolute best."
"They were playing for their team and for victory, nothing else."
Jong is also well aware of the controversies surrounding North Korea, which remains locked in a standoff with the international community over its nuclear program and has been hauled before the U.N. Security Council on accusations of sinking a South Korean warship in March.
"You don't cut off your parents from your life just because they've made mistakes. I, too, can't betray my parents who have raised me," referring to North Korea, Jong says in Shin's biography, "Our Player, Unseen Us."
But don't expect him to move to Pyongyang. "My homeland is not Japan. There's another country in Japan, called Zainichi," he says in the book. "None of these countries South Korea, North Korea and Japan can be my home country, because I'm a zainichi and therefore Zainichi is my native land.
"And I think that's the purpose of my life letting the world know of the zainichi existence."