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The secret machine: Inside North Korea's World Cup squad

By James Montague, CNN
  • North Korea will be at its first World Cup since 1966
  • Almost nothing is known about the players from the secretive state
  • CNN got inside access to the team at a recent training camp in Switzerland
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been credited with giving the coach tactical advice

London, England (CNN) -- In the shadows of the Swiss Alps, just outside the mountain village of Anzere, Jong Tae Se hit the back of the net with an unnerving, metronomic accuracy.

The North Korean soccer star known around the world as the "People's Rooney" -- thanks to a bullish playing style reminiscent of England and Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney -- was deep in concentration, drilling the ball into alternative corners of the goal as the midday sun beat down.

He was preparing for the World Cup and arguably three of the toughest matches in world football: North Korea have been drawn against Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast in the so-called "Group of Death."

Around him, on the rest of the pitch, was a sight not usually relayed through the Western media: North Koreans having fun. The players goofed around, blasting the ball at each other, laughing as they piggy-backed across the half way line.

They had got to know each other well over the long qualifying campaign and the intensive overseas training of the past six months. Successive training camps in Spain, Germany and several in South America were designed to drill them into a close knit team that would make the Motherland, as the North Koreans term their nation, proud.

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I don't want to be like Rooney, I want to play like Didier Drogba
--North Korean striker Jong Tae-Se

"Everyone keeps saying this about Rooney!" Jong said with a laugh as he trotted to the sidelines to have his picture taken with inquisitive Swiss kids.

"But I don't want to be like Rooney, I want to play like Didier Drogba," he says, referencing the Chelsea and Ivory Coast star.

In such idyllic, open climes, it was easy to forget that the players represented one of the most isolated regimes on the planet. Given the unexpected air of détente, I asked for an interview. Jong looked over his shoulder at his stone-faced coach, Kim Jong Hun.

"Er ... If my coach agrees ... " he replied rhetorically. As befits a man with a military bent with little time for journalists - Kim Jong Hun also coaches North Korea's army team known as "April 25." It's named after the date the fledgling North Korean army was founded. He watched on unmoved, wearing a scowl as inscrutable as the granite-faced mountains surrounding him.

Ever since North Korea qualified to play in South Africa, the rest of the world has been scrambling around to fill in the blanks. In an era of 24-hour news cycles and European football leagues that boast almost as many nationalities as the U.N., almost nothing is known about the players that secured North Korea's first appearance in the World Cup finals since its debut 1966.

What little was known came from North Korea's qualification matches, where they showed little flair but were belligerent and organized, conceding just seven goals during 16 qualification matches. The 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, that clinched a place in the finals was the perfect epitaph for their campaign.

It turned out that North Korea played its football like it plays politics: extremely defensive, fiercely proud and, ultimately, prone to stalemate.

North Korea's high-altitude training camp was a rare chance to fill the blanks, to work out who North Korea's secret weapon is -- a player rarely seen in Pyongyang.

Jong Tae Se is one of three "Zainichi " in the North Korea squad; Japanese-born North Koreans who could have chosen to represent Japan, North Korea or South Korea. Along with the bustling midfielder An Young Hak, who also plays in Japan's J League, their inclusion means at least some of their players have experience playing under professional conditions.

But given that everyone else in the squad remains isolated in the local, amateur league, their inclusion has been controversial in North Korea and Japan.

"He [Jong Tae Se] is very good so they wanted him to play in [the] Japan national team but he chose North Korea," explained Lee Jiseon, a reporter from Japan's TV Asahi following Jong's progress.

"They have a great relationship now. But the first time he joined the team they [his North Korean teammates] discommunicated him because of [the different] culture and life, but he is accepted."

Goals tend to do that. Jong Tae Se has scored 17 in 23 matches, making him North Korea's most potent threat.

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Politics is never far away when it comes to North Korean soccer.

When the team -- aptly nicknamed the Chollima after a mythical flying horse that is impossible to mount -- came close to qualifying for Germany 2006, then-coach Yun Jong Su wanted to use the tournament as a springboard for unification.

"We are two teams but we are the same blood, the same nation," he said when asked what would happen if North and South Korea qualified for the finals.

"At the moment we are separate, and I hope both teams can qualify for the World Cup. If we do, the two teams could be unified and go together as one."

South Korea edges past North in World Cup qualifier

North Korea didn't make it to Germany 2006, but both Koreas will be present this time in South Africa. No one is talking about unification any more, not after they met in qualification. The first game had to be moved to neutral China after the North refused to fly South Korea's flag or play its anthem.

North Korea lost the second game after the squad was struck down by food poisoning. It wasn't long before the DPRK accused secret service elements in the South of deliberately poisoning its players as part of its "moves towards confrontation" with Pyongyang.

Preparations post-qualification have been equally fraught.

A rare friendly match, against Chile, was canceled because of the earthquake in February. A training camp in Zimbabwe went the same way after locals protested at their appearance. It turned out that North Korea had trained a unit of the Zimbabwe army that massacred thousands of civilians during an uprising in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s.

North Korea condemns South over warship claims

By the time the North Koreans had made the five-hour drive to the small Austrian town of Altach, for a final warm-up match with the 2004 European champions Greece, North and South had suffered heightened tensions after the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March which left 46 South Korean sailors dead.

All ties between North and South had been severed. The only contact the North had left with the outside world was its national soccer team. Unsurprisingly, dozens of South Korean journalists descended on the Cashpoint Arena for training.

"I will not answer this question! I do not recognize the place you talk about!" coach Kim Jong Hun replied angrily at a hastily convened news conference. The South Korean journalist had made the cardinal sin of referring to "North Korea." For Kim, there was no North and South Korea, only one, united Korea.

The second question was on firmer territory. Asked the reasons for the North's recent footballing success, he replied: "It is because the great leader of the people [Kim Jong Il] is very interested in football and is investing in the team." In the past, he has boasted that Kim Jong Il has personally intervened with tactical advice.

North Korea holds Greece; Paraguay loses

More than 4,000 Austrians turned up to watch the match, mostly out of morbid curiosity. It ended 2-2, a creditable result against European opposition. The star of the show was Jong Ta Se, who scored two stunning goals.

"The [World Cup] matches will be shown in Pyongyang," Kim Jong Hun reassured the media before leaving in a blacked out car. "I can't say the exact number of supporters there will be there [in South Africa], but there will be supporters for North Korea."

When they kick off against Brazil on June 15, the Chollima will need all the friends, and luck, they can get.

"BackStory: Chasing North Korea" airs Monday at 6 p.m. ET.