The Toronto Star’s Cathal Kelly goes where no journalist
has gone before – behind the “wall of silence” of North Korea’s soccer
team. His trick: accidental injury. This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.
Cathal Kelly goes full-out for access. Photo by Jean-Francois Begin/La Presse
TEMBISA, SOUTH AFRICA—This was my cunning plan to penetrate the wall of silence surrounding the North Korean football team. First, badly injure myself.
We arrived in Tembisa, a down-at-heel township 35 km from central Jo’burg, around 4 p.m.
We were more than hour early for a planned press conference and open training session by the North Koreans. Tensions were high around the team.
A rumour circulated on Friday morning that four members of the squad had defected. Typically, the North Koreans said nothing.
The team’s first press conference with western journalists on Monday had been combative and slightly surreal. Now the world’s press was ready for a second round of jousting. Or at least, the chance to count the players on the field.
I made the trip by car up with Jean-François Bégin, my colleague at Montreal’s La Presse.
Tembisa is a dusty spot, dotted by tin shacks and chaotic traffic. The greatest point of interest within the city is the Makulong Stadium. The stadium hit the news a week before the tournament began when there was a stampede before a friendly there featuring North Korea and Nigeria.
It isn’t much to look at. It reminded me of the old Varsity Stadium. North Korea uses it as a training ground.
The arena sits hard up against a neighbourhood of tightly packed adobe bungalows. A 2 ½-metre wall topped by razor wire surrounds it. We were told to park alongside the wall. A Portuguese film crew had arrived before us. We pulled up beside them, the rear of our car pressed up against the wall.
I got out to stretch my legs. The police lazily regarded me from behind a wrought-iron fence.
People who’ve spent time in South Africa have told me that after a few months, you stop noticing the razor wire. It’s everywhere — around businesses, houses, public parks, churches. What took them months must have taken me 10 days.
I slipped around behind the Portuguese TV truck, daydreaming. The first thing I felt was a tugging. When I flinched, I felt a ripping. On the section wall I was passing, the razor wire spilled over, hanging about 2 metres above the ground. It caught me on the crown of my head and tore two jagged strips in my bare scalp. There was an impressive amount of blood.
I leaned forward to keep the stream off my clothes. Jean-François jumped out of the car. I explained what had happened. He ran off to get the police. The Portuguese had some napkins.
It didn’t hurt badly, but I wanted to disinfect it as quickly as possible. I walked over to where Jean-François was negotiating with the police.
“What happened?” one cop asked, not moving from his stool.
“Razor wire,” I pointed.
“No,” he said.
“Yes,” I said. I took the napkins away and blood began dripping off my nose.
Grumbling, they let me in. Nobody had a first-aid kit. A few minutes later, another paramilitary vehicle pulled up. More cops. This car had a kit. They disinfected my head.
“Is there a doctor?” I asked.
“What about the North Koreans. They’ll have a doctor, right.”
The cop smirked at me.
A middle-aged woman, a security guard, came out and caught sight of me.
“You’re covered in blood,” she said, clucking her tongue in the direction of the police.
“You have to get washed up,” she said. Her name was Marta. “Come into the stadium.”
The cop on the stool was up now, waving his hand lazily at Marta. Nobody goes into the stadium.
Marta grabbed my arm, began dragging me along and blew right by him. She made a low hissing noise at the cop that I’ve noticed African women of a certain age make when they’re non-plussed. Marta — my protector.
We went down a corridor and through one door and I was standing in the North Korean dressing room. It looked like your high-school locker room — wooden cubbies, a green wooden bench, a couple of toilets.
Marta washed my head at the sink. Then she told me to fling the bloody mess of hand towels in the toilets. Only one was working. I blocked up the other. Sorry, North Korea.
Marta left me with a few handfuls of paper and walked me back to the gate.
The same policeman who’d disinfected my head now wrapped me up like Elmer Fudd with a toothache.
I returned to the other side of the gate to wait.
At 5 p.m., the North Korean motorcade arrived. The curtains on the team bus were closed. When the gate opened, a hundred or so media members sprinted to the doors.
The corridor Marta had taken me down was now blocked off with school desks.
We sprinted up the stairs. When we reached the third floor, there wasn’t a North Korean in sight.
FIFA officials had erected a “wall” of chairs, three deep. They announced that the press conference had been “postponed.” We were invited to watch the team practice from our third-storey perch in the stands.
I leaned over the chair barrier.
“Is there a doctor with the team? I’ve hurt myself,” I said.
The FIFA official stared for a bit. I looked more ridiculous than injured. But he phoned someone. And someone else phoned someone. And everybody was suddenly on their phones.
Out on the pitch, the North Koreans were playing keep-away. With their hands.
Without anyone to interview, the journalists now started interviewing other journalists. A Japanese claimed that he could see the rumoured defectors out on the field. It turns out, the whole panic was caused by a clerical error. The North Koreans had mistakenly left four names off their team sheet.
Behind the chair wall, a pair of paramedics — Manuel and Abigail — were presented to me.
Abigail’s first question: “You cut yourself shaving your head?”
“Um, no. Razor wire.”
Manuel took a look. No, no stitches required, he said. No shot required. No nothing required. I was not reassured.
“Doesn’t the team have a doctor here?” I asked another official, a guy with an English accent who looked like he was in charge.
He looked at my head. And looked at me. And my head.
“I think it’s impossible,” he said. “But I’ll try.”
A few minutes later, he sidled up and whispered, “Come with me.”
Back down the stairs and off into the familiar corridor. Down on his knees in front of a locked door was a middle-aged man in North Korean colours. A player was standing behind him. The pair of them were fiddling with the lock. The English guy disappeared. The player sensed someone behind him. He turned. His eyes widened. He jerked his head toward the ground, as if the sight of me was painful. He tucked his chin into his chest and stared steadily at his shoes.
The official fiddled with the lock. Then another door and another lock. The sight of me didn’t impress him much. He took hold of my arm and pushed me through.
“You. Here,” he instructed. The player nervously followed me in. Then the door was closed and he and I were alone inside the North Korean dressing room.
It was Spartan stuff — tracksuits now neatly folded in place, shower slippers sitting below them.
The player moved to the other side of the small room, sat down and stared intently at the wall. He looked like most of the North Korean players — remarkably fit, a crew cut.
He wore a tracksuit and full kit underneath, including shin pads. Later, after checking pictures, I realized it was defender Ri Jun-Il. I recognized him by the small scar alongside his eye.
At first, we sat in silence. A very long silence.
“Hello,” I ventured.
Ri turned uncertainly, torn.
“Hello,” he finally said. He still wouldn’t look at me, but now he was facing my direction.
I pointed at my head. “Razor wire.” I mimed the coils and catching myself and cutting my head.
Ri winced appreciatively.
“You. Brazil,” I said, and gave him a thumbs up.
Another uncertain smile.
I mimed running hard. The North Koreans had lost their early match to Brazil, but ran like demons the whole time. I gave him another thumbs up.
“Very good,” I said.
Ri shook his head.
“No. No,” he said, and gave me an ‘aw shucks’ wave. “No good.”
It occurred to me that I was having the first-ever sit-down interview with a North Korean footballer inside a North Korean dressing room.
The doctor arrived. Abigail and Manuel bundled in behind him. He was a tan, middle-aged man in glasses. He took off his red ball cap and placed it down very carefully beside me. Then he straightened and said deliberately, “I am the first aid director.”
His English was better than decent.
“The doctor?” I asked. I was finished with anybody with an MD after their name.
“Yes, the doctor.”
“I’ve cut my head.”
He unwound the bandage and gave me a couple of sympathetic ‘Oohs.’ He probed the wound with his fingers. He put his hand to his chin and thought. Abigail, Manuel and I waited for his verdict.
“Sutures,” he said.
“Sutures?” said Manuel, uncertainly.
“No sutures. But go hospital,” he said. “You need medicine. I have medicine — special medicine.”
“You have it here?” I said hopefully.
“No,” he said, looking crestfallen. “I leave in hotel.”
He opened his FIFA pack and showed me. No medicine.
He did decide that my head need rewrapping. He very pointedly made sure that the bandage came from Manuel. Then he wrapped me up like a mummy. It felt nice and tight.
When he was finished, he stepped back to admire his work. Then he squared his shoulders toward me again.
“I have great pity,” he said slowly.
“I have great pity,” he said and touched his heart.
I thought he felt bad about not having any sort of disinfectant or a tetanus shot.
“No, no, that’s okay. I’m sure they’ll have something in the hospital.”
He shook his head from side to side and started again.
“No. I have great pity,” he said, and pointed to the top of his own head.
He was saying sorry that this had happened to me at all. I liked him more than any doctor I’ve ever met.
He still hadn’t told me his name. He ignored my question when I asked him.
Just then another North Korean official walked in to talk to Ri, an assistant coach by the rangy look of him. He saw me out of the corner of his eye and looked as if he might faint.
He swayed in place. He tore his eyes away from mine, deeply confused, even frightened. I waved. He goggled. He turned toward the opposite wall. I held my hand up and continued wagging it. He looked back at Ri and the doctor. Both men ignored him. He waved back slowly.
Then he fled without saying whatever it was he had come in to say.
I stood up and shook the doctor’s hand. Ri stood as well. I shook his hand. I thanked them both. They smiled and nodded. They seemed embarrassed by my thank-yous. So I left.
Probably like you, I know the bare facts about North Korea — an oppressive dictatorship that starves its own people; a place so deprived of basic necessities they cannot light their cities; a populace brainwashed into a state of constant frenzy for war.
I was at North Korea’s first game against Brazil. I saw Japanese-born and Japan-based North Korea striker Jong Tae-Se cry during the national anthem. I thought, these are the privileged robots who eat well while their countrymen eat grass.
I met them for only a moment yesterday. But those two men changed my mind. The regime is evil. They weren’t.
Would any other team here have pulled their doctor off the field during practice to treat a journalist — and one who is ostensibly an enemy of the state?
I don’t know. But I doubt it.
Later, in the hospital, a young South African doctor was taking a look at the cuts. First, we talked a little about football.
“Do you know who treated me first?” I said after a while.
“The team doctor for North Korea.”
“North Korea? Is it?” he said, only half interested. “What were they like?”
“They were wonderful,” I said. “You would have liked them.”
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