April 18, 2005


North Koreans think the unthinkable (Andrei Lankov, 4/19/05, Asia Times)

In the middle of the game, there was a heated argument between a North Korean player and a referee. Passions boiled over and Korean defender Nam Song-chol shoved Syrian referee Mohamed Kousa. The player was sent off, as is customary in such situations.

And then the violence erupted. The North Korean fans began to throw bottles, chairs and everything they could find at the Iranian players and referees. It took a few minutes before order was restored while the stadium loudspeakers demanded that fans stay calm.

The game was resumed and the North Korean team eventually lost 2-0, but the violence continued for almost two hours after the match. There were clashes between police and fans, and for a longtime Iranian players could not leave the stadium because of the unruly and outraged crowds outside. Eventually, order was restored, but the Iranian team's coach Branko Ivankovic told Reuters news agency: "We felt our lives were not safe. We tried to get on the bus after the game, but it was not possible. It was a very dangerous situation."

The official Korean Central News Agency described the match and inserted in the official report an unusual sentence: "At the end of the match, all the spectators were angered and vigorously protested the wrong refereeing by the Syrian referee and linesmen."

Meanwhile, Japanese soccer organizations have demanded that North Korean authorities improve security for a coming match with Japan's team. They also expressed concerns about the personal safety of Japanese fans, some of whom are likely to fly to Pyongyang.

As soccer riots go, the Kim Il-sung Stadium incident was definitely a moderate affair. Pyongyang "rioters" were very tame in comparison with like-minded fans in, say, Britain. There is also nothing new in the emergence of soccer hooliganism in a communist country; after all, the first soccer riots in the Soviet Union occurred in the 1970s - and initially they were relatively small-scale affairs, not unlike the violence in the Pyongyang stadium.

However, the violence in Kim Il-sung Stadium has major internal political implications that in the long term are probably far more important than all the justified worries of the Japanese fans. A soccer riot itself is hardly an exceptional event, but it is truly unusual that this time the violence erupted in Pyongyang, where residents for decades could not even think about breaking the public order and disobeying police and soldiers.

Ah, the sociology of soccer riots...

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 18, 2005 8:18 AM

Only in North Korea would a soccer riot be a promising sign about civil society.

Posted by: Mike Earl at April 18, 2005 11:38 AM

Given North Korea's history of kidnapping Japanese citizens, why wouldn't such people be concerned about their personal safety regardless of any soccer riots?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 18, 2005 12:51 PM

You mean North Korea might put an end to soccer?

Posted by: David Cohen at April 18, 2005 1:14 PM

The Iranian coach should have grabbed a microphone and told the crowd if they didn't sit down and shut up, that Khatami would personally send the US Air Force all the necessary GPS co-ordinates.

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 18, 2005 3:03 PM