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
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
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,
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
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
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
But Jong has said he admires his North Korean teammates’ passion
for soccer, and noted that they are largely indifferent to money
“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
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.