“The pitch was split in half, from here it’s split,” An Yeong-hag said, pointing his hands, placed palms together, in front of him before curving them apart. “You enter here and on the right-hand side is North Korea and on the left is Brazil — Seleção. When I came out the Seleção were warming up and it was like a computer graphic. Amazing. Kaká, Robinho, Maicon. The yellow kit. It was night so it was lit up. I couldn’t believe it. I had to warm up but I could sense them there. At first, I couldn’t concentrate.”

Chong Te-se was also finding it hard to focus. “The World Cup is Brazil,” he stated simply. “Actually I cried when I was warming up. The lights were really bright, I couldn’t see. It was a situation like a concert; I’m the performer. Brazil were warming up next to us. It was really cold in South Africa, so my breath was white.”

The tears didn’t stop there, and after another brief sob during the Brazilian national anthem — “I’d heard that on TV a lot of times” — the floodgates opened for Chong as Aegukka rang around Ellis Park.

“I removed my limits, just felt my feelings, my emotion,” he said of the scene which became one of the most memorable of South Africa 2010. The sensitivity of playing the DPR Korean anthem — the only other time the country had appeared at a World Cup finals, in England in 1966, had resulted in anthems being played before only the opening match and final. This, then, was the first time the DPR Korean anthem — literally translated as ‘Patriotic Song’ — had been heard at the World Cup.

“Everybody says that if a man cries it doesn’t look good but I don’t think about that,” Chong added. “I have an emotional personality; when I’m angry I get really angry, when I feel down I feel really down, when I’m happy I’m really happy.”

Such extremes should perhaps be expected of someone whose upbringing demanded flexibility.

Before its division in 1948, Korea had been a colony of Japan, a protectorate from 1905 until Japan’s defeat at the end of the Second World War. At that point the United States and the Soviet Union assumed control of the country, supposedly on a temporary basis with the stated aim being to establish a free and independent nation. Tensions between the two prevented things going quite so smoothly, though, resulting in the communist north and democratic south still in existence today.

During the 35 years of Japanese occupation countless Koreans had made the journey across the Japan Sea — whether of their own volition or under duress — and almost 40 years after Japanese rule came to an end Chong was born in Nagoya, on 2 March 1984. He grew up as the youngest of three children and one of approximately 450,000 second- or third-generation Koreans living in Japan — a zainichi. His family had arrived ahead of the Second World War when Korea was still one country and the young Chong received his education in Japan in institutions run under the North Korean system.

He claims not to have suffered any particular difficulties as a Japanese-born Korean on account of his schooling largely segregating him from Japanese children his age. “Only in the football games,” he said, offering a hint of how his combative playing style may have developed. “The Japanese would say to us, “You smell like kimchi, did you brush your teeth?” and I’d say back “you smell like shōyu (soy sauce) and takuwan (pickled radish)”. That’s normal, it occurred all the time.”

As well as holding his own in the schoolboy taunts department, Chong was impressive in other areas on the pitch and in 2006 he signed for the J.League side Kawasaki Frontale. He made his North Korea national team debut the following year in an East Asian Cup qualifier against Mongolia, scoring four goals. He followed that impressive start with another four against Macau, before drawing a blank against Hong Kong. “Hong Kong were strong, I couldn’t get a chance,” he lamented seven years on.

We met at Holly’s Coffee Shop on the first floor of his apartment building in Hwaseong, South Korea (he lives on the 22nd), and Chong — still in his grey tracksuit having come straight from training with his current side Suwon Samsung Bluewings — sipped his latte, leaning his head against the wall and outlining — not for the first time — why he opted to represent the Chollima ahead of the country of his birth. “They were forced to come — the politicians made them work but they were forced,” he said of his grandparents’ arrival in Japan. “I studied that in school. My grandparents were discriminated against so of course I didn’t want to change my nationality to Japan.”

His father’s possession of a South Korean passport meant that was the default for Chong too, but when it came to representing one of the Koreas at international level he didn’t have any doubts. “I went to a Korean school in Japan. DPR Korea supported this school, teaching us about DPR Korean history and so on. Although I have a South Korean passport I didn’t feel like playing for South Korea. When I hear the national song before the game it doesn’t feel like... the DPR Korean one — that’s it. That’s a good feeling for me.”

An’s story is similar. Like Chong he is the youngest child, with one older brother, and he attended Korean schools in Tokyo before enrolling at Rissho University in Saitama. Upon graduation in 2002 he signed for the second-division side Albirex Niigata, helping them to promotion to the top flight as champions the following season. His career progressed to take in several clubs in both Japan and South Korea and now he is back in J2 with Yokohama FC — home of the Japanese legend Kazuyoshi Miura, still going strong at 47. In An’s case the desire to honour his ancestors — whose arrival in Japan he understands to have been nothing but voluntary — led him to receive a passport from the north. “I was born and raised in Japan but my nationality is Chōsen — not North Korean, Chōsen,” he explains, using the Japanese word for the undivided Korea. “My passport is Chōsen. Korea when it was one country. The reason why I got [that] passport is because my schools — elementary school, middle school and high school — were run under the system of the north.”

Five-and-a-half years older than Chong and a ganglier, less imposing figure than his junior (who was once dubbed ‘the People’s Rooney’), An spoke to me across a table in a featureless, multi-purpose room at Yokohama’s clubhouse. He was keen to discuss the complexities of his precarious position in between Japan and North and South Korea. “There are many people who don’t know about these things so as much as possible I want to discuss them,” he said. “‘Why are you in Japan?’ ‘Why are you North Korean?’ There are many images, right?”

One image that doesn’t spring to mind when considering the complexities that divide Korea is that of a North Korea international in the shirt of the nation south of the 38th Parallel. An, though, made his debut for North Korea against the south in an exhibition match just a few months after supporting Guus Hiddink’s men as they upset the odds at the 2002 World Cup finals in South Korea and Japan.

“They got to the semi-finals. Hong Myung-bo, Ahn Jung-hwan — they’d done amazingly,” the midfielder recalled. “I’d supported them — because we’re the same people. I’d also worn the shirt and watched the games on TV so playing against the team in that friendly match — the North-South Unity Game — was a really positive experience. Because we’re the same people.

“The players and people are pure. The politics… there are many things that haven’t been carried out well. But I don’t think that everything is wrong or that everything is right. In the media, though, only negative things appear. That makes me a bit sad. I’m in-between and know there are many good things about Japan and many good things about Chōsen. There are many positives. Now it’s only negative things.”

The opportunity to play at a World Cup finals and do their bit to break down the walls which so firmly shelter their nation from the eyes of the world had never realistically been on the agenda for either player, though. Chong even admits that alongside his family and educational ties, he had been influenced by the relative ease of getting into the North Korea national team ahead of those of South Korea and Japan.

Nevertheless, on 17 June 2009, Park Ji-sung’s 82nd-minute equaliser against Iran secured a 1-1 draw for the south — who had already qualified — meaning North Korea needed just a point from their final Group B game against Saudi Arabia, which kicked off six hours later in Riyadh (a defeat for South Korea would have necessitated a win). They got it, with the game ending scoreless, securing their passage to South Africa in second place behind their neighbours.

“It was a dream to play in the World Cup,” An said of his reaction at the final whistle. “For me it was the biggest thing. I always believed in the dream, did my best and the dream came true. I couldn’t stop the tears.”

Predictably, neither could Chong. “One minute crying, then one minute stopped. Then a minute later I’m crying again. That was the best situation in my life. Of course when I first played at the World Cup is a good experience but in Saudi Arabia that’s my best. My highlight.

“One week beforehand I dreamed every night about the game; sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Of course this game was also like a dream so I wasn’t sure if it was a real thing or not. So a lot of times I hit my face.”

As Chong came to his senses, international coverage immediately began to swirl around the Hermit Kingdom’s achievement and it was only a matter of time before the footage of Pak Doo-ik’s historic strike to down Italy at Ayresome Park was being dug out. Chong, however, never expected any such surprises in South Africa. “In those days football was not at such a high level as now,” he said. “Every generation football is going to a higher level. So we couldn’t think about 1966; that’s a perfectly different situation. Every journalist asked me, ‘What do you think about 1966?’ That is separate, another thing.”

As if to illustrate Chong’s point December’s draw flung Kim Jong-hun’s side into the perilous Group G alongside Brazil, Portugal, and Côte d’Ivoire. “I didn’t watch it live,” An said. “I was asleep as it was so late. The next day I had messages saying, “otsukaresama!” [a term used in Japan when work is finished]. You know why, you don’t need an explanation. My friends made that joke on purpose — well, not a joke. Everyone understands how difficult that group is. Difficult, but I was looking forward to it.”

Chong, too, was under no illusions as to the size of the task which lay ahead of him — although memories of 1966 must have been knocking around somewhere and he dared to fantasise a little. “Everybody in the whole world was thinking that DPR Korea were going to lose every game and, unfortunately, I thought about that also. But I thought that if I scored just one goal we had the possibility to win: that’s football. Of course ball possession can be 80% against 20% but sometimes the 20% team wins; that’s football.”

And at half-time in the opening game against Brazil — a Chong goal aside — things could hardly have been going any better. “Brazil are the same as you, human. They’re strong but they’re human,” An recalled his coach saying before kick-off. It was scoreless at the interval but nobody in the North Korean dressing-room was getting carried away. “At that point we knew Brazil weren’t finished. Of course in the second half they’d go up a gear, become quicker. Of course they weren’t finished like that. Brazil had more strength, could change the gear and power up, speed up.”

“I realised that Robinho was playing like a magician,” Chong said of his memories of the game. “He’s dribbling and looking to nutmeg players. He’s always trying and he’s doing it! He’s a magician. And Lucio is like an animal! Like a bear or something. In Japan if I do this,” he put his arms out at his sides and leaned against the back of his chair, “the defender couldn’t move, because I’m a powerful player in Japan. Only in Japan. But Lucio is not human so… I’m a child. That game was like adults against children.”

Even so, the kids were alright. They couldn’t ultimately hold out for a point, but Ji Yun-nam’s late goal gave the scoreline the respectability it deserved and a 2-1 defeat to the five-time world champions was far from a disgrace. Buoyed by their performance and the reaction of the watching world the players looked eagerly ahead to their next game, against Portugal.

Oh, the impetuousness of youth! The team unraveled.

“Koreans are really pure because the country is closed — like children from the countryside,” Chong said. “Against Brazil it was good, everybody was excited. ‘We can play, we can play well against Portugal also!’” That enthusiasm was to prove their undoing and, despite again still being in the game at half-time — just 1-0 down — the second 45 minutes were disastrous and the Chollima were hammered 7-0 by Cristiano Ronaldo and co.

“For me the real shame about the result against Portugal was that I wanted to lose having given 100%,” An said. “But in the Portugal game we didn’t give 100%. In the first half we did, but in the second half we were disjointed and I really regretted that. If we’d showed our real ability, if we’d lost 7-0 while playing at 100%, that can’t be helped — there’d be no regret. But we didn’t show 100%. That was a real shame. On the World Cup stage, against a team with good players, that was a shame. More so than winning or losing.”

I suggested that Portugal’s incredible Eusébio-inspired comeback from three goals down to win 5-3 at Goodison Park 44 years previously might have had an effect on the North Korean players, with the class of 2010 overly keen to strike a measure of revenge, but An dismissed the notion. “I’m not sure it was that,” he said. “It wasn’t a game in which we felt pressure. The team wasn’t one. Perhaps we were overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the World Cup. There are many things at the World Cup. It’s a big stage, the media were paying us attention because we’d done well [against Brazil]: lots of different things affected us.”

The cause of the defeat is a lot clearer in the mind of Chong, who feels that he was at fault for disrupting the harmony of the team. “We conceded and I was really angry,” he said of his mood at half-time. “I was irritated so I threw a plastic bottle down. The bottle flew behind me and a defender was sitting there and got really angry with me. He thought I was angry because we conceded so he said, ‘You must score, you should score. If you could score you can do this.’ But I hadn’t meant to do this. I was frustrated so threw the bottle down but made a mistake and it sprayed him with water. But I was frustrated so of course I couldn’t say sorry. I went to my seat and sat down with my head down and a towel over my head. The atmosphere became really bad. I think it was my fault. Of course I still think that. I acted like a fool.”

Whether Chong was ultimately to blame or not, one thing was certain after the thrashing and that was that North Korea would not be replicating 1966 and progressing to the knockout stages of the tournament. There was still one game left though, against Côte d’Ivoire, and both An and Chong were keen to make the most of it. “If I knew from the beginning, if God said you’ll lose all three games, I’d still want to play,” An said. “The World Cup was something I’d wished for in my dreams since I was a child. So more than anything I was happy.”

“This game I just wanted to score,” Chong recalled. “Only one goal I wanted to score. I’m a striker, so if I can’t score one goal in three games that’s a problem. Of course I wanted to transfer to a high-level league so I had to show my ability to the world. Actually we thought that the third game, as long as we didn’t suffer another crushing defeat, it would be ok. If we could just try not to concede too many.”

The eventual 3-0 reverse was an improvement on the catastrophe against Portugal but meant Chong didn’t get the goal he craved (or his move to a big club, ultimately only sealing a switch from Kawasaki to the 2.Bundesliga outfit VfL Bochum). He was also left disappointed in his quest to add Didier Drogba’s shirt to those he had gained from Robinho, Kaká, and Cristiano Ronaldo. “He couldn’t because he wanted to throw it to the supporters,” he said. “Maybe he wasn’t happy with me because we lost 7-0. They had almost no chance in the tournament because of us. They had to win 8-0 or 9-0. That was impossible.”

Such matters would soon appear trifling.

Reports began to circulate that the reception in Pyongyang to North Korea’s elimination at the first hurdle — and in particular the mauling at the hands of Portugal — made England’s quadrennial pannings on Fleet Street look positively tame. The team were assembled in front of a 400-strong audience at the People’s Palace of Culture and subjected to a lengthy ‘grand debate’, during which they were required to tear strips off the coach Kim Jong-hun — who was also expelled from the Worker’s Party and sent to a labour camp for ‘betraying Kim Jong-un’, then heir-apparent to his father Kim Jong-il — or so the story went. Chong and An, the only two individuals potentially reachable for comment on the matter, were spared the ordeal having flown straight back to Japan.

The pair insisted the rumours were false. Both told me they returned to Pyongyang with the team and were treated to dinner by the North Korean Football Association after leaving South Africa. A party had been arranged for the squad after qualification had been confirmed in Riyadh the previous summer but Chong and An had both missed out as they had had to return for duty at their respective clubs. This offering, involving just one other player, their fellow zainichi Ryang Yong-gi (also of a Japanese side, Vegalta Sendai, who hadn’t made the final 23 but did travel to the finals as a support member), was made to make up for that.

As for the punishments: “No truth, no truth. Of course no truth,” Chong said. “Everybody’s a hero because we played at the World Cup. The manager was also army, in a high position, so nobody could say anything to him. DPR Korea is the army’s country so of course they couldn’t touch this situation. After two months or three months I went to the national team again and I met with them in the city. That’s one journalist who wants to get attention from the world. Everybody was laughing when I told them about the reports. ‘What the fuck is this? We are alive!’ They didn’t know about it until I told them. They heard that for the first time from me and were just laughing.”

While the players back home could apparently see the funny side, An was disappointed that such news was back on the agenda after the favorable coverage the team had received as a result of its efforts on the pitch in South Africa. “People like gossip and in the past maybe such things happened but… again they [the media] went back to the same things. It’s a shame.”

Of course, as overseas-based North Koreans neither player is oblivious to the factors which contribute to the image of their country. “If North Korea became more open and transmitted things those kind of questions wouldn’t come up,” An said. “There’s no kind of announcements though so people will keep saying things. The players can say, ‘No, there was nothing like that,’ but I think it’s necessary to become more open. But there’s no information so there’s that image.”

The desire to keep information at a premium also meant that ahead of the finals Chong and An were advised how to deal with the media. “I got a mail from Kim Jong-il,” Chong said. “Me and An, the Japanese-Korean players, got a mail from Kim Jong-il. An official message saying, ‘Take care with the media.’ It had the normal content you’d imagine and then the last sentence was, ‘Take care with the media.’ Be careful because in Japan and South Korea and America everybody is writing bad things about DPR Korea, so they are cautious, scared of the media.”

This attitude is manifested in stringent rules every time the team travels abroad for matches, including one that forbids them from leaving the hotel unaccompanied. “Everybody worries about that,” Chong said. “A lot of people run away from DPR Korea to China and South Korea to seek asylum.” Personally he doesn’t envisage any of his teammates ever attempting to make a dash for it, though. “A national player is a hero in DPR Korea. They can eat enough and national team players, after their career, they can get a good job. So what is the reason for them to run away from the national team, and from DPR Korea?”

It works the other way, too, and when Chong and An travel to Pyongyang for games they receive similarly protective treatment. “We can’t go out of the hotel alone, so we must be with an attendant when we go out. One man from the government for one group,” Chong explained, although he didn’t seem especially put out by the rule. “There’s not a lot of places for sightseeing. Just eat somewhere. Go to the hot springs. Pyongyang is not as bad as everybody thinks. There are a lot of buildings but it’s like Japan 30 years ago. The trains are really old and the buildings are also old. Around the airport it’s really countryside. There are not so many cars on the street so the air is really clean.”

An painted a similar picture. “Pyongyang isn’t that noisy: it’s a quiet place. It’s not especially lively. But, within North Korea it’s the biggest city with big hotels and department stores and so on. To be honest, I’ve been to the country many times but I don’t know about things in terms of politics, what is happening. Living in Japan too there are things I don’t fully understand to do with Japanese politics. I don’t know about those things. It’s complicated. But I think it would be good if people could come and see and experience it.”

That, I suggested, is something I, and many others, would love to do were the opportunity more readily available. “You really want to go?” he replied, seemingly genuinely surprised. “It’s better to see and feel for yourself. Good things and bad things, to see for yourself is best. If you’re here,” he said gesturing with his right hand, “you have this side’s balance. If you’re here,” his left hand created the other end of the invisible line between us, “you have this side’s balance. People who look from in-between are the most reasonable.”

And in-between is where An and Chong most certainly stand. Discrimination against zainichi in Japan is not as pronounced as it once was — “Everybody lost their name and Japanese-Koreans weren’t allowed to speak Korean,” Chong said of the difficulties faced by his grandparents’ generation. “The Japanese politicians took away their language.” — but is still an underlying problem. Japanese-DPR Korean relations are also strained, with paranoia on both sides, although neither player has suffered any specific discrimination on account of being a DPR Korea international. In South Korea there isn’t any real animosity towards zainichi — although they are often considered as more Japanese than Korean — and the key concern surrounding the likes of An and Chong is which side of the Korean political divide their allegiance lies. Both players insist they are welcomed by their North Korean teammates, but instances such as the missive from Kim Jong-il demonstrate that they are nonetheless deemed worthy of special treatment.

There would certainly have been hurdles to overcome had the pair chosen to play for Japan or South Korea, but they wouldn’t have been as high as those they’ve needed to clear as representatives of one of the last communist states. Surprisingly, Chong did admit to slight regrets, although relating to factors more readily associated with the modern footballer than for any political reason. “Of course sometimes I envy the Japan and South Korea national teams because they are well-paid and have a level of recognition,” he said. “But if I go back to 2006 I think I would choose the DPR Korea national team again.” 

Would it not be ideal, I ask, if no choice were needed and players could compete together as a united Korea? “That’s a good question,” he nodded. “I answer when journalists ask me this: Korea is one. I answer always: Korea is one.” So in his mind, as with An when he donned the Red Devils shirt in 2002, the country is not as divided as it may seem? “No. Of course it’s separated north and south but this answer is the most peaceful.

“As much as possible sports need to be separate from politics. I want to play peacefully. The DPR Korea team can’t always do that which makes me sad. We can’t change that soon but we must change. And I must change that because I’m standing in the middle of south and north and Japan, so that’s my role. I don’t know if I can change this and how much power I have for politics. Of course I’m just a football player.”

South Africa 2010 did provide an opportunity for footballers to wield some power, however soft and however briefly. “I was happy they supported us,” An said of the neutrals who rooted for the North Koreans at the finals. “They actually came to see, didn’t rely on images but came to see the real us. We did our best and the people who came saw that. I was happy and want to have that opportunity again. For people to come and see us and support us on that kind of stage, appearing in an international competition. To show our best efforts, to lessen the bad image through football. Our manners too. We didn’t do anything untoward, we played fairly on the pitch.”

Appearing at the World Cup finals in the red and blue of his family’s country also impacted on An’s identity at a personal level. “I felt pride, really. Standing on the World Cup stage, Brazil were next to me. That kind of big game, wearing the kit of my country. It was a very special feeling. Even though I was born and raised in Japan I could stand together with members from my mother country. Singing the national anthem was a really special feeling. I felt really proud. I also wanted to show to younger people, to all zainichi Koreans, ‘We can do it.’ If you’re born in Japan you too can stand on this stage, together with the people of your country, sing the national anthem together with North Koreans. I wanted to demonstrate that.”

When and if the next generation of players — born in the north or zainichi — will have the opportunity to experience that emotion remains to be seen. Both An and Chong insisted there won’t be 44 years between North Korean World Cup appearances again, but they missed out on this summer’s event in Brazil and as the latter pointed out, “Life is not numbers, you can’t calculate these things. You can’t predict the future.”

Time doesn’t stand still either, and by 2018 An will be 39 and Chong 34. Failure to qualify for the finals in Russia would surely mean neither player will relive the buzz they felt lining up against the greatest World Cup side of all. “If this game goes on forever I’m happy,” Chong recalled of his thoughts that Tuesday night in Johannesburg. “Forever I’m happy. I didn’t want it to finish. When it finished I woke up from the dream. It’s like I woke up in the morning.”

Many thanks to both players for their time and co-operation, and to Kang Yong and Erika Fujino for helping to arrange the interviews. The assistance of Chiaki Aita at the FCCJ, John Duerden, Narae Kim, Dominic Bliss and Nick Goulds was also hugely appreciated, as was the input and translation help provided by Anri Kang.