Smiling North Koreans win over South African hosts

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Associated Press

Posted on June 19, 2010 at 11:05 AM

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) — The world is curious to get a glimpse of the 23 men who have become North Korea's most visible ambassadors.

They represent one of the world's most reclusive nations and one of the last outposts of communism, where media coverage is strictly controlled by the state and few people have access to foreign Internet sites or permission to travel abroad.

And although focused on their bid to match the 1966 team's glorious run to the quarterfinals in their only other trip to the World Cup, 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 at rest, ready with smiles and waves.

The players eat specially prepared dishes behind closed doors at their four-star hotel and travel as a group to and from practice, 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.

Unfortunately for the North Koreans, they lost to Brazil, 2-1. Their next match is Monday against Portugal in Cape Town.

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 reclusive 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."

She said the team was among about 70 North Koreans who turned up at the zoo June 12 for a guided tour to see crocodiles, lions and polar bears on one of their only nontraining excursions at the World Cup.

"They were very excited. They said they don't get to spend a lot of time at the zoo and that they don't have a lot of zoos in their country," Madlala said.

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," she said.

They practiced that newfound knowledge Thursday evening at a Pretoria gym where they've been working out alongside club members. The team hit the treadmills, stretched and lifted weights, pausing to take photos and even shooting some video with a handheld camera.

On their way out, they stopped to sign a souvenir jersey for the gym, writing some phrases in English and Korean.

Several of the players leaned down to shake hands with children, and even taught them how to say "thank you" in Korean and in Japanese, the native language of star forward Jong Tae Se and midfielder An Yong Hak.

"They were lovely, in a very festive mood," said Vimla Moodley, an official with the Ministry of Health who worked out with the team.

Gym member Michael Aldaheff said they seemed shy, but he shook hands with one player during his workout.

"It's great — it's not an opportunity you get every day," he said.

After that, it was back to their tightly secured hotel in Midrand, north of Johannesburg, where the team is in a separate wing, away from other guests.

In his spare time, Japan-based An — who tweets as "an_yeonghag" — says he surfs the Internet and chats on Skype. Jong, the other Japanese-born player on the North Korean team, has said he never travels without his Nintendo, Mac laptop and iPod, but has vowed to refrain from updating his blog, http://ameblo.jp/jongtaese9/, during the World Cup.

The players without laptops have been seen jockeying to use the computer in the hotel lobby.

Madlala, the zoo spokeswoman, said she was won over by the team and cheered for them against Brazil.

"For me, what stood out was that they were so humble," Madlala said. "They were so happy to talk to everyone, and that for me was so special."

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Associated Press writer Sangwon Yoon contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.

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