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North Korea's Jong Tae-Se is "the People's Rooney"

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - From behind closed doors, tight lips, and heavy-handed rule, a soccer star may be emerging.

North Korean forward Jong Tae-Se speaks his mind and plays to score. (Kin Cheung/AP)
North Korean forward Jong Tae-Se speaks his mind and plays to score. (Kin Cheung/AP)Read more

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - From behind closed doors, tight lips, and heavy-handed rule, a soccer star may be emerging.

His name is Jong Tae-Se and, other than his nation's infamous leader Kim Jong II, he could become the world's most recognizable North Korean. Despite constant accusation that he is not North Korean enough - he was born and raised in Japan though he isn't Japanese; his mother is South Korean yet he plays for North Korea; he holds a North Korean passport yet has never lived there - Jong is a couple of goals from delivering to the world a North Korean sports star.

Essentially, Jong straddles three countries: North Korea, South Korea, and Japan.

He does this fashionably.

He is his country's 26-year-old striker, "the People's Rooney" (an allusion to England's Wayne Rooney), a young man who speaks his mind and plays to score. He keeps a blog, listens to rap, drives a silver Hummer, and wants to play in the English Premier League.

This tournament is Jong's chance.

He travels with a Sony PlayStation, an iPhone, and a laptop, which is considered curious among his teammates, who are from an isolated country with one state-run TV channel. But Jong also endures consistent criticism for being too Western in dress and thought, for being quite unlike a North Korean.

In about 24 hours, Jong will either be the talk of this World Cup, or just another forward for just another overwhelmed team.

North Korea is the World Cup's - and the world's - great unknown. The country has been as secretive about its national team's World Cup training as about its weapons buildup at home.

But on Tuesday, Korea DPR - North Korea here - won't be able to hide inside its four-star Johannesburg hotel, or behind the walls of its training ground, inside which no foreign journalist was allowed for the team's first four training sessions.

Because on Tuesday night, North Korea plays the world's most visible soccer nation: Brazil.

Little is known about North Korea's on-field potential; of all World Cup teams, it holds the lowest ranking.

"I only watched half of a warm-up match they played," Brazil's Ramirez told reporters Sunday. "We are still waiting for the Brazilian coaches to give us more information about them."

It has been 44 years since North Korea played in a World Cup. The country made a surprising run to the quarterfinals in 1966, beating Italy.

"Nobody talks about them, but they play good football and physically are very fit," said Sven-Goran Eriksson, head coach of Ivory Coast.

While other countries managed only a week or two of national team training, given that most players hold big-time club contracts, North Korea entered into a hermit-like isolation and trained in its country for four months.

"Our rivals are expecting to see us focus on defense because we actually played quite defensively during qualification," North Korea coach Kim Jong-Hun told, one of two outlets allowed into the country's early training sessions. "But our game is not all about playing cautiously - we can also play good attacking football when we need to."

That attack will land on the foot of Jong, whose story is as interesting as any here.

He has predicted two very amazing things to occur in South Africa: He will score a goal in every game, and North Korea will advance out of Group G alongside Brazil and in place of world power Portugal and up-and-comer Ivory Coast.

"We are determined to amaze people, to spring another surprise," Jong told

Jong was born in Nagoya, Japan, the son of a South Korean mother who identified herself as North Korean and sent him to Chongryon schools. (Chongryon is the association for Koreans in Japan who keep strong ties with North Korea.) Later, he attended Korea University in Japan, a private university funded by North Korea.

Jong attempted to discard his South Korean citizenship in favor of North Korea, but technically was unable to, because South Korea does not recognize North Korea's existence. Jong's North Korean passport was issued by Chongryon, which functions as North Korea's de facto embassy in Japan.

Since 2006, Jong has played for Kawasaki Frontale at the top level of Japanese professional soccer, and for the country he chose, North Korea.

These are the nuts and bolts of Jong's national association and professional career, but it's his relationship with his national teammates that seems remarkable.

In 2008, Jong told that North Korea's facilities and support structure were suspect. He has told other reporters since that his teammates can easily amuse themselves playing rock, paper, scissors - he said this with admiration, not disdain - and that they always flock to his hotel room to "play with his toys," listen to his American music, and try on his flashy Nike sneakers.

"He had many doubts, but as he trained with the North Korean players, he saw their pureness," Shin Mu Koeng, Jong's friend and biographer, told the Canadian Press. "They never complained about the inadequacies, and they did their absolute best."

"Our chances may not be that great, but we can't say there's no chance at all," North Korea midfielder An Yong-Hak recently told the media. "The mentality for victory, strong organizational power and unity in fighting - these attributes are further ahead in us than the Brazil team, I think."

In 2010, North Korea signed a contract to have its jerseys provided by an Italian apparel company, Legea.

The company proposed an array of colorful options.

"They required a single color," Legea's president Luigi Acanfora told the media. "They wanted a very sober jersey . . . a fiery red, like labor."

On Tuesday night against the Brazilian superstars, in front of ESPN cameras and global lenses, Jong, as colorful a character as this tournament holds, will wear only one color: North Korea's.