PRETORIA, South Africa – Life is all strawberries and kimchi for North Korea’s enigmatic team at the World Cup.
They represent one of the world’s most reclusive nations and one of the last outposts of communism, where media coverage and is strictly controlled by the state and few people have access to foreign Internet sites or permission to travel abroad.
North Korea is back in the World Cup for the first time in 44 years, and the world is curious to get a glimpse of the 23 men who are their nation’s most visible ambassadors. Although focused on their bid to match the 1966 team’s glorious run to the quarterfinals, they are hardly robots without a sense of fun.
Behind their serious demeanor in the game, the camera-shy athletes have proved playful and personable.
The players eat specially prepared dishes behind closed doors at their four-star hotel and travel as a group to practice and back, largely hidden from public view behind the curtained windows of a bus.
Meals are prepared by a chef who traveled with them from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. It’s familiar food: sushi rolls called “kimbap,” made of rice and filled with cucumber, carrots and other vegetables. And, of course, there is kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage that is Korea’s most famous dish.
Dessert is fruit: strawberries, grapes and watermelons. The night before their match with Brazil, they got a treat: “chal deok,” or sticky rice cakes, a traditional dessert eaten on special occasions.
The North Koreans lost their opener to Brazil, 2-1.
Between practices, the team has managed to have some fun, sneaking away one morning to the Johannesburg Zoo to see lions and tigers. They also paused during workouts at a Pretoria gym to pose for photos with bodybuilders and sign autographs for children.
The world has been curious about the team from the small country of 24 million people, led with absolute authority by Kim Jong Il.
“They’re very friendly, very relaxed,” said Letta Madlala, spokeswoman for the Johannesburg Zoo. “They’re a very nice bunch of people.”
The players were more than happy to mingle with other visitors, posing for photos and signing autographs.
“They were talking to everyone. Most of them could say a few things in English,” she said.
Some even learned some local lingo, including “Sharp sharp,” a popular phrase meaning “All good.”