NKorea’s Rooney loves his cars, clothes and rap

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 Rooney among

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.”

Associated Press writers Sangwon Yoon, Mirae Kang and Claire Lee

in Seoul, South Korea, and James Armstrong in Nagoya, Japan,

contributed to this report.