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Are North Korean World Cup Soccer Fans Chinese

I saw the red flags of North Korea blazing the stands as Brazil played the Communist nation on the football pitch below. I don’t think I have ever seen this flag before, let alone watching it being displayed prominently on international television. Has North Korea began to open up to the world? Has their first [...]

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I saw the red flags of North Korea blazing the stands as Brazil played the Communist nation on the football pitch below. I don’t think I have ever seen this flag before, let alone watching it being displayed prominently on international television. Has North Korea began to open up to the world? Has their first entry into the World Cup soccer tournament in 44 years overturned a new leaf? Is the dictatorship opening up and allowing its citizens to travel internationally?

I had to wonder who these people were, how did so many people get permission to leave North Korea — a country with stonewall borders — to come to South Africa to cheer for their team? How would they get the visas to enter South Africa anyway even if they did get permission to leave their country?

They didn’t. The 2010 World Cup football fans cheering for North Korea are Chinese. They are actors given free tickets to travel to South Africa and hold the red flags of North Korea — they are not Korean, they are a show. Rather than allowing their own citizens out of the country to travel to South Africa and root for their home team, the Korean government granted 1,000 tickets to Chinese people. The recipients of the North Korea booted free ride to the World Cup were mostly well known Chinese pop stars and actors, though some regular soccer fans won the tickets in some sort of lottery. In South Africa, these “fans” operate under the guise of being from North Korea perhaps to make it seem as if the country is not a brick wall nation, to make it seem as if North Koreans are permitted to travel — that they are not trapped within their country.

Otherwise the North Korean cheering section would be as dark and quiet as the country itself.

The position of North Korea in the world is no better amplified than by the bridge that spans between Dandong in northern China and the North Korean town of Sinuiju. At night, the half of the bridge coming from the brightly lit Chinese side shines with lights and fluorescents, but at the exact middle of the bridge it goes completely dark and continues on to a country that is equally without light.

This is a Chinese stunt, a poetic way of saying “We have and they don’t, we are great and they are not.” The Chinese like these stunts, they seem to like feeling collectively powerful. China’s Xinhua news agency is also loving the fact that North Korean’s soccer fans are really from their country. North Korea made it to the World Cup this year, and China did not — they need to be knocked down a peg or two: “Your team made it but your fans can’t nah, nah, na, nah, nah. We are Chinese and even though our soccer team sucks we can travel outside our country nah, nah, na, nah, nah”

So China gladly took the 1,000 free tickets and the accompanying political boost to benevolently lend North Korea its own hired cheering squad to stand in as surrogate fans for their soccer team. The disguise may have worked if Xinhua did not openly propagate the arrangement, if the simple question was not so easy to ask:

How did these people get permission to leave North Korea?

If something in the world requires a large group of people to coordinate their efforts, there are no better people for the job than the Chinese. The society possess the higher attributes of an ant colony.

Though I must imagine the media feast that would have ensued if a band of North Koreans really were allowed to travel to the World Cup. The fans probably would have been devoured by reporters looking for a story, they probably would have been prompted to speak badly about their country, misquoted, creatively sound byted to further reaffirm the world wide notion that North Korea is a bad, bad place run by a bad, bad dictatorship.

Maybe it is.

But the job of the media is to reaffirm the status quo of its audience. We think that North Korea is evil, this is what we are shown, this is what we demand to see — any information to the contrary is blasphemy — these Chinese “fans” holding the red flags of one of the world’s last truly closed dictatorships are reaffirming my media fed perception of North Korea:

The people are so trapped that they are not even permitted to cheer for their own soccer team.

Perhaps this is correct.

Perhaps North Korea would rather be the ass of its own joke than have a heavily biased media inquiry into the status of its citizenry.

I have never been to North Korea, I must strongly remind myself that I know nothing about the country.


There is much debate about whether these North Korean soccer “fans” really are Chinese or if they are, as the North Korean officials say, genuine. There is no hard information in the news articles that I have read — all cite Xinhua, the Chinese news agency with vested interest. The Western news media whines, “How can we tell the difference between North Koreans and Chinese people?”

The solution seems simple, don’t ask officials, don’t look for high end “sources,” just pay a Chinese guy and a South Korean 10 bucks each to go find out:

With a single glance each could confirm without doubt the nationality of the fans. East Asians, like everybody else in the world, know who they are not.

Are the North Korean World Cup soccer fans really Chinese?

Filed under: China, Current Events, Intercultural Conflict, North Korea, Politics, Sports

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3706 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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4 comments… add one

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  • Caitlin June 18, 2010, 6:10 pm

    No way Jose.

    Wow, I want to know if that’s true or not. If it is, that is definitely bizarre fun fact of the month.

    Can Chinese or Korean people actually tell each other at a glance? I didn’t think it’s supposed to be so easy, just like I wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell an Italian from a Spanish person at a single glance.

    (Heh, reminds me of the website alllooksame.com, which I think is supposed to go to show that you can’t actually tell the difference. Actually, what I think it’s actually supposed to be showing is that there is just as much diversity in how East Asians look as any other “race,” despite the stereotype that “all look same.”)

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com June 19, 2010, 10:45 am

      The academics say that East Asians are not suppose to be able to tell each other apart but I can 100% say that this is not true. It is my impression that these “studies” were done using stripped subjects or just with faces, but, in reality, people don’t often go outside naked. People where clothes, have certain dispositions, speak language differently, move in various ways, there are many tell tale signs of national affiliation that go beyond raw physical appearance.

      From experience, I can surely say that East Asians can identify people as being from neighboring countries even before they speak. I’ve seen it done correctly many times. When traveling, I can often tell correctly the nationality of Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese. They dress differently, they tend to carry different gear. It is not hard to tell them apart.

      It is sort of like how Israelis, a very mixed and new nationality, can always identify each other even before hearing Hebrew spoken. I asked them how they did this, I was expecting an answer something like, “We all have giant noses,” but, no, it was more simple than this:

      They said that they can identify each other by their clothing.

      Can you tell the difference between someone from Quebec and British Colombia?

      But the most obvious telltale sign in the nationality of the North Korean fans is probably language. I don’t think this can be a debated issue: Chinese and Korean are radically different languages. What language are the “fans” speaking? Even a passerby who has had only a brush with either language could tell.

      I have no idea why this has not been completely confirmed by now. No wait, I know why, it is because journalistic detective work seems to be a thing of the past.

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      • Caitlin June 19, 2010, 8:22 pm

        Well, dunno about Quebec but I can sometimes tell the difference between someone from BC and someone from Ontario, based on how they dress. But I’d probably only guess right 2/3 of the time.

        You’re right thought, it’s not so mcuh faces as it is clothing. In Guatemala I used to always place “guess the nationality,” and while I couldn’t always pin it down exactly, 95% of the time I would always guess if someone was European or North American.

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  • Jack1111111111 November 25, 2010, 7:53 am

    Dear friend,

    I am a chinese and I can make sure that those people in the photo are not a group of chinese.
    This is just a direct feeling, which means if I meet such a group of people I would not speak in chinese language to them.

    Now let me explain in details about this photo.

    The skin. The skin is explored in sunny day too much. In china, it’s really hard to find a GROUP of people all in such a dark skin. You may find one or two, but not ALL people together. Unless you collect them specially. Just like you can’t find all people are blondes in New York. But in N Korea, many chance to get sunshine together for political activities.
    Besides,KoreanS may think dark-skin is kind of hard working and prefered, but NOT today’s chinese.Most chinese including males are trying not to darken their skin. The skin in picture is so called very black by the view of chinese.

    Dark skin people in china are mostly peasants. IF (I just say if) there’re 1000 free tickets. Peasants won’t get them due to corruption. Chinese officials and their friends will share the tickets. Those people are light skins. Besides, peasants are not trained and not easy to organized. They are not good actors.

    THen the korean flag on clothes. It’s not easy to smile when carry a foreign flag. You can try by yourself. All are human beings, same feeling.

    And WTF in hand? I can’t stand it at least. If I pay attention to soccer, I may forget how to play this strange brick.

    BTW, once I traveled in Russia, I find many N koreans there. They can travel , maybe , in group only.THey are in dark skin, just like what in photo. Since soccer team can travel, why not cheer leaders? They can take boat to save air ticket fee.

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