Match points: North Korea

North Korea will take to the pitch tonight, for their first appearance in world cup finals since 1966. In something of a David and Goliath fixture, they will take on Brazil in their opening match. The bookies did not take long to call a favourite: Brazil is the No. 1 team in the FIFA rankings and North Korea is No. 105. 

We have done a sweepstake here in the office, and no one wanted to get North Korea, the short straw. Unusual really. We Brits are often known for our patronage of the underdog. We revel in the triumph of unlikely winners and often champion the most unlikely, as a collective nation. Not so here at Amnesty. We know too much, and the reasons no one wanted to pick “that team” out of the hat, were not limited to anticipated poor sporting performance, and the consequent financial implications (though it was considered). 

Yesterday, I sent out a briefing to sports correspondents ahead of the fixture. It was a reminder of the appalling human rights record in the country, to accompany speculation about their tactics and performance. It makes for grim reading. The government of North Korean, which is often described by journalists as the most Orwellian country in modern times, continues to systematically violate the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of its citizens in almost every conceivable way.  

Since a food crisis in the 1990s, the country has experienced extreme food shortages. Many have tried to flee to neighbouring China as a consequence, but are regularly forcibly returned in the thousands to North Korea, where they face detention, interrogation and torture.  

Freedom of expression, movement and association, are all severely restricted for residents of North Korea. Executions are reported to be taking place, but independent human rights monitors continue to be denied access. 

I was asked to arrange access for a journalist who wanted to watch the match with some North Koreans now living in London so he could talk to them, and gain some perspective of what the match meant. I could not do this. None of the people I spoke to will be watching the game. They see it as too closely associated with the regime they despise. Instead, the journalist will be attending a talk with our North Korea expert. I don’t know how this match will pan out, but I can think of scores of reasons why it is high time the people of North Korea had a more level playing field in terms of human rights. I hope this spot light will serve to increase unified international calls for this to happen.

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