The government of North Korea has been fostering relationships with European soccer clubs, sending more than 30 players to Italy and Spain for training since 2014, according to a report from the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
North Korea’s aim is to make its players “become better than Messi,” as stated in a motto at the Pyongyang International Football School. So far, North Korea has produced one superstar, Han Kwang-song, who was named one of the 50 best players in the world under 18 by the Guardian in 2015.
However, because the North Korean regime completely controls and finances its soccer club, any entity that buys a player from North Korea is essentially financing the North Korean government. In a recent blog post, the CHNK criticized the Italian government for working with North Korea to train its players.
“The Italian government has neither direct links nor apparent relations with the North Korean regime. But ignoring the atrocities committed inside the country is unacceptable. Hosting and paying two, three, or even ten soccer players in Italy may not provide massive financial assistance to the North Korean regime, but conducting any business with the North Korean authoritarian dictatorship should be taken much more seriously by the Italian government,” the post read.
European soccer clubs are not the only institutions doing business with North Korea. Since 2001, FIFA has provided North Korea with $2 million in funding. The purpose of these funds was for improvements to the Kim Il-sung Stadium in Pyongyang, and to open the International Soccer School for pre-teen children in 2014. An additional $7,678 was provided for domestic soccer development, maintaining fields, and training adolescents and referees in 2014.
FIFA withdrew $1.66 million in funding from North Korea in 2015 because of the country’s unsanctioned nuclear tests. Because of United Nations regulations, FIFA no longer provides North Korea with financial assistance.
North Korea has long been using sports as a propaganda tool designed to give the country international legitimacy. The country has distinguished itself at several Olympic Games, most recently at Rio in 2016, where contestants won two gold, three silver, and two bronze medals. In addition, North Korea has qualified and participated in two World Cups, one in 1966 the other in 2010.