BEIJING — He is the new public face of North Korea:
Jong Tae-se is a 26-year-old publicity hound with his own blog, where he strikes a sultry, bare-chested pose. He has appeared in television commercials. He drives a silver Hummer and likes to dress like hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur. When he goes on the road, he travels with a laptop, iPod and sometimes a Nintendo DS and a Sony PlayStation Portable.
Jong is the star striker of North Korea's 2010 World Cup team. That makes him at this particular moment the most recognizable living North Korean, with the possible exception of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.
This is the first time North Korea has qualified for the World Cup since 1966. Although the country is as much a pariah as ever, having been implicated in the recent sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 people, its novelty value keeps it in the headlines coming out of South Africa. At the bottom of the 32 teams in competition, North Korea is pitted against top-ranked Brazil in its first match, on Tuesday, a classic minnow-against-the-whale competition that should be curiosity enough to attract a strong following.
"People don't know about North Korea. We want to change North Korea's image," Jong told reporters last week outside the Makhulong Stadium in Tembisa, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
If Jong sounds like a most improbable North Korean, it might be because he was born and grew up in a community of 600,000 Koreans who live in Japan. Most of them are descendents of laborers who moved during Japan's occupation of the Korean Peninsula. He was educated in pro-Pyongyang schools run by the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
As a child, Jong obsessively watched videos of one of the most famous World Cup upsets of all time: a 1966 match in which North Korea beat Italy to advance to the quarterfinals.
North Korea started wooing him during his sophomore year at Tokyo-based Korea University. But the effort was complicated by the fact that Jong had been registered by his father as a South Korean. (Like most Korean residents of Japan, he didn't have Japanese citizenship.) The South Korean government would not let him give up his citizenship because it does not recognize North Korea.
"I am not South Korean!" Jong protested to a South Korean sports magazine in the midst of a protracted battle to renounce his citizenship. He qualified for the North Korean team anyway, because soccer federation rules allow dual nationality, but Jong is dogged by criticism that he is not North Korean enough. He has never lived in the country except for short stretches training with the team.
"It is hard to say what nationality he is," said Masafumi Mori, author of a recently published Japanese-language biography. "Jong is like this figure, standing right on top of where the Earth's crusts of the three countries of North Korea, South Korea, Japan meet."
Despite his attempt to renounce his citizenship, Jong's popularity extends to both sides of the border. South Korea's team is in the World Cup, too, but when it comes to soccer, the estranged Koreans usually cheer each other on.
"I think it is too bad we didn't notice him when he was in high school or college. Maybe we would have picked him instead for the South Korean team," said Do Young-in, a reporter covering the World Cup for Sports Seoul.
The transition to playing with the North Korean national team was not easy for Jong. He had to learn how to care for and assemble his own equipment, how to do his own laundry and carry his own bags, according to his biographer.
He used to have a hard time with the way his teammates would handle his personal possessions, especially his cell phone. With time, he learned that he needed to allow them to use his Nintendo and PlayStation to build good will within the team. "It has taken a lot to accept their culture," he told reporters in South Africa.
Fortunately for Jong, he probably will not have to do much adjusting to North Korean culture, as he showed no interest in settling down in Pyongyang. His goal during the World Cup, Jong has said repeatedly, is to score once in each game, just once.
And then to sign on to play in England.
Nagano is a special correspondent in Tokyo.
Better to train abroad
Although North Korea's top athletes have adequate food and training facilities, they have limited opportunity to play outsiders — or even to watch matches, because foreign television broadcasts are banned.