A History of Football in North and South Korea c.1910–2002

Development and Diffusion

by Jong Sung Lee (Author)
©2016 Others VI, 280 Pages
Series: Sport, History and Culture, Volume 5


For the Koreans, no sport has surpassed football in terms of its popularity and national importance, from the Japanese colonization era onwards. However, its importance has developed over time as a result of unusual and agonizing historical events, including the tragic split between North and South Korea.
This volume attempts to assess football’s changing political and cultural place in Korea over the course of the twentieth century, from the Japanese colonial period via the Korean War to the end of the Cold War. It analyses the development and diffusion of football in North and South Korea from the following angles: nationalism and regionalism, internationalism and globalism, patronage, and the Korean style of play.
It particularly concentrates on the social meanings of the North Korean «miracle» in the 1966 World Cup and of South Korea’s success in the 2002 tournament. The author shows that football in Korea has not only reflected changes in Korean society but helped to shape those changes.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction: Korea, football and history
  • Chapter 1: The development of Korean football under Japanese rule, 1910–45
  • Chapter 2: Korean football in turbulent times, 1945–65
  • Chapter 3: North Korea’s impact on world football and South Korea’s football revolution, 1966–73
  • Chapter 4: The decline of the North and the rise of the South, 1974–91
  • Chapter 5: ‘1966 Again’: The two Koreas and the 2002 World Cup, 1992–2002
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

| 1 →


Korea, football and history

An overview: A national game for the two Koreas

Over the course of the twentieth century the Korean people suffered a series of unusual and agonizing experiences: Japanese colonization, the Korean War, and then the division into two states, North and South Korea. The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 gave rise to a movement for independence, and the ensuing struggle meant that anti-Japanese sentiment became deeply entrenched in the Korean psyche. It was unfortunate that the liberation from Japanese imperialism in 1945 was followed by the tragic Korean War (1950–1953). After the split, North and South Korea rapidly fell into Cold War politics in which both sides sought symbolic victories over the other whenever opportunities arose, and sport became a major site of ideological conflict. These circumstances help to explain the strong sense of national identity that has developed in both North and South Korea. The modern sports introduced into Korea helped to foster a spirit of independence under the Japanese; sports later became a high-profile ideological battleground during the Cold War. As Ha and Mangan have argued, modern sport in Korea was essentially ‘the consequence of its political priorities’.1

Changes in Korean society over the years are clearly reflected in the history of Korean football. For the Koreans there has been no sport to surpass football in terms of popularity and national importance. During the era of Japanese colonization, football emerged as a national game since it provided more victories over the Japanese than any other sport. There was ← 1 | 2 → thus a patriotic tradition attached football in both Koreas at the outset of the Cold War. The World Cup successes enjoyed by North Korea in 1966 and South Korea in 2002 indicated that both Korean nation-states were determined to use football to gain international recognition. As far as the totalitarian North Korean government was concerned, the achievement of the national team in reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in 1966 proved their post-war reconstruction and state-making programmes were on track. The miracle in England quickly became a source of North Korean national pride and for thirty-six years could be claimed as a unique achievement. No other Asian national team reached the quarter-finals until 2002.2

In another sense, however, 1966 has evoked nostalgic feelings for North Koreans especially as it came to represent the summit of the nation’s football achievement. Subsequently North Korean football never achieved the same level of success and disappointing performances on the field seem to have reflected the experience of an increasingly impoverished and internationally isolated society. In addition, periods of absence from international competition, caused either by the ruling party’s intervention or because of punishments prompted by the violent behaviour of its players, have not helped the development of the game in North Korea.

Ironically, North Korea’s success in 1966 may have had a greater impact on South Korea where football development was significantly stimulated by the success of their northern neighbour. In a nation with a political culture characterized by pervasive anti-communism it was seen as important to match or even surpass North Korea’s achievements. This prompted the government to inaugurate a new international football tournament, a significant initiative that established football as a component of South Korean national consciousness. Developments in South Korea were also influenced by the sudden emergence of Japan as a football power when its team captured the bronze medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The traditional rivalry between Korea and Japan dating from the colonial era provided a further incentive for the South Korean ← 2 | 3 → military regime to encourage the game’s development. Indeed, as one social critic has noted, ‘Japan and North Korea supplied the two most important impetuses for [the government] to cultivate South Korean football’.3 Thus, though it took a different form, state intervention was as important a characteristic of football development in the South as it was in the North. For both North and South Korea victories in football internationals, including the ‘Korean Derby’ were increasingly regarded as a matter of national prestige.

The success of South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, like the success of North Korea in 1966, had important ramifications. It was not just what happened on the field that was significant. South Korea’s role as co-host in staging this global event sent out reassuring signals about the nation’s new status as an advanced society. The real sensation, however, was brought about by South Koreans coming out to the streets. Crowds of passionate red-shirted people rooting for their national team at the City Hall Plaza in Seoul, the very place where a host of ordinary people had gathered in 1987 to protest against the South Korea’s authoritarian government and call for political reform. The happier crowds in 2002 seemed to symbolize South Korea’s internal shift to a more democratic society over the intervening years. ‘This fervour over the World Cup’, a Korean sociologist has observed, was ‘about national pride, identity, and confidence’.4 Against this social backdrop, the South Korean team manager, the Dutchman Guus Hiddink, emerged as a national hero. His leadership was highly praised throughout the country. South Koreans were particularly impressed by his impartial and pragmatic team selections. This seemed to defy the cronyism and favouritism which had become deeply ingrained in South Korea during the period of rapid economic development.

The wave of red in the streets, it has been argued, indicated that South Korea had begun to free itself from the endemic ‘red complex’ of pervasive ← 3 | 4 → anti-communism. The ‘good old days’ of North Korean football became a matter of common interest to Koreans on both sides of the border, especially when South Korea upset Italy in a stadium festooned with plastic cards reading ‘Again 1966’. Significantly an edited hour-long version of this match was aired by the North Korean broadcasting company, Chosun Joongang television.5 This was a very exceptional decision for North Korea. The intention might have been to refresh fading memories of 1966 by broadcasting this match. In the context of the policy of appeasement towards the North being pursued at the time by the incumbent South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung, the 2002 World Cup helped to remind all Koreans of the proverb ‘blood is thicker than water’.

For all its positive effects, the 2002 World Cup generated some concerns about South Korean football. The fanatical World Cup fever surrounding the national team represented a marked contrast with the public indifference to local professional fixtures. This characteristic feature of Korean football was rooted in the nation’s early twentieth-century experience when the game became inextricably bound up with nationalism and cultural resistance to Japanese rule. Kang Jun-man has pointed out that Koreans are fond of obtaining ‘values and meanings through football rather than football itself’.6 It is undeniable that the Korean professional football league has been dwarfed by the immense popularity of ‘FC Korea’. This phenomenon could also be attributable to a weak connection between the football clubs and regionalism. For example, it is through baseball that regional identity in the South has often been most strongly expressed. Thus there is a clear sporting demarcation. For South Korean sports enthusiasts, it is the performance of the national football team in international competition that matters, while domestic baseball is their staple diet. ← 4 | 5 →

The historiography of Korean football

The existing literature on the history of football in Korea is not extensive. The Korea Football Association (KFA) sponsored two official histories published in 1986 and 2003. However, although these books provide an outline for understanding how the game in Korea has developed, they concentrate, to a considerable degree, on international matches which are looked at with an uncritical eye.7 Later, in 2005, the KFA published a collection of biographies of six Korean football celebrities, including Cha Bum Kun, the all-time leading scorer for the South Korean national team, and Guus Hiddink, to mark their induction into the Korean Football Hall of Fame. This book came up with a few new facts but lacked any analytical perspective.8

Former journalists have made a major contribution to the historiography of Korean football. A National Pastime: Football and its Bright Morning (1997) and A National Pastime: Football and its Brilliant Traces (1999) are both worthy of notice.9 The former, in dealing with Korean football during the colonial years, illustrates the early development and diffusion of the game through a myriad of colorful anecdotes. The latter indicates how Korean football rose to the challenge of the World Cup from the period of the liberation onwards. Along with these books, A History of Korean Footballers (2009), by another former journalist, makes use of oral testimony gathered from interviews with former international players.10 However, though these books have their uses and are cited here ← 5 | 6 → where relevant, they make little attempt to relate Korean football to its changing political and social context.

Kang Jun Man has added to our understanding of the characteristics of Korean football and the changes it has experienced by setting them in a wider context. He has made use of Korean primary sources to demonstrate the relationship between Korean politics and football, focusing mainly on Korea-Japan and South-North football contests. His work makes the point that Korean football history is an essential part of modern Korean history that should not be overlooked by serious Korean historians.11 Korean-Japanese football rivalry has also been researched by a Japanese author, Ohshima Hiroshi, who has drawn on a range of Korean and Japanese sources and weaves some important football matches between the two nations into his account of diplomatic relations between the two countries. However, the main strength of this study, The Legend of the Kick-off between Korea and Japan (1996), is that it demonstrates how Korean football has been viewed in Japan and explores the relationship between Korean and Japanese football more generally.12 In relation to this theme, a former Japanese football journalist, Goto Takeo, also provides us with a compelling narrative on the subtle relations surrounding football issues between Korea and Japan. His two books, The Future Centuries of Japanese Soccer (1997) and A History of Japanese Soccer (2007), for instance, have elucidated some critical points on the 1986 World Cup preliminaries and 2002 World Cup bidding race.13

There have been few attempts to explain the history of Korean football to an international readership. Most studies of Korean football in English have been written either as part of the history of world football or as a theme pertaining to the 2002 World Cup. William Murray has very briefly outlined the development of Korean football along with football ← 6 | 7 → in other Asian and African nations in his Football: A History of the World Game (1994).14 He later modified this brief account for a chapter on Asian football in Stephen Wagg’s edited collection Giving the Game Away (1995). However, though supplying a fuller account than before of North and South Korea’s World Cup campaigns, there was insufficient detail to allow the internal complexities to be grasped.15 David Goldblatt has described Korean football along the same lines as Murray while clearly suggesting that the rapid rise of South Korean football, especially after 1970, could be attributed to ‘the authoritarian, militaristic and nationalist foundations’, established under the Park dictatorship (1961–1979).16

It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that this analysis has been widely accepted by Korean academics.17 The South Korean government’s interventionist strategy has been studied by Chung Hong Ik whose chapter in Manzenreiter and Horne’s edited collection, Football Goes East (2004), argues that the government began to channel its energies and resources into the development of Korean football for two main reasons: firstly, because its deep ‘colonial roots’ as a form of social resistance to Japanese rule made it an effective way of forging national identity and, secondly, because it offered the opportunity of ‘early dominance on the Asian circuit’.18 Japan, Korea and the 2002 World Cup (2002), also edited by Manzenreiter and Horne, contains some valuable studies on Korean football, notably a chapter by Sugden and Tomlinson concerned with the 2002 World Cup bidding ← 7 | 8 → race between Japan and Korea and the way in which it was enmeshed into the politics of world football. The co-authors focused on the strategic alliance between the president of the KFA, Chung Mong Joon, and Lennart Johansson, the president of UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), which thwarted Japanese ambitions to be the sole host and led to the 2002 World Cup finals being a co-hosted event.19 Finally, of all foreign literature relating to South Korean football, Podoler’s recent study (2008) has offered the most comprehensive narrative. It is important because he has assessed South Korean football in comparison with the football of its sister-adversary, formulating a hypothesis in which Korean football is seen as demonstrating both the ethnic unity of the two Koreas and as something that divides the hostile camps of North and South. He has also aptly represented the intimate nexus between politics and football in South Korea by analysing key historical episodes, one of which is the 2002 World Cup and its positive outcome for the South Korean people. In addition, the development and changing culture of football in North Korea includes a special focus on why women’s football in North Korea has become more important than men’s football as a source of national pride since the late 1990s.20

As for literature on North Korean football, little has been published in North Korea itself and what little there is is not easily accessible. Football of Our Nation (1963) combined a football history in North Korea with an account of skills and tactics. What strikes the reader most deeply throughout the history section was North Korea’s efforts to improve its football by frequent international contact until the early 1960s, by which time they had developed a unique national football style. All-out attack, as this official history argues, became established as the main feature of North Korean ← 8 | 9 → football in this period.21 Football: Past and Present (2001) showed that the North Koreans regarded what is often described as their miracle of 1966 as having made them the foremost football power in Asia, thus ensuring that their national prestige was very much at stake when they played international matches against other Asian countries after that date.22 Significantly, some statements made by Kim Jong Il regarding the role of football in North Korea were included in published collections in 1997 and 1998. These are essentially primary sources but are helpful in understanding the North Korean leader’s intentions and plans.23 However, North Korean football has never been thoroughly researched by South Korean academics. Even if we consult The Sports of North Korea (2004), by Lee Hak Rae and Kim Dong Sun, we get only a glimpse of its distinctive football history.24 Kang’s Football is Korea (2006) and the work of Jung Hee Jun, a sports sociologist, looked at North Korean football largely within the context of North-South relations, hence they had limitations in locating the nature of North Korean football in a wider perspective.25

Literary fiction can be helpful to historians and two novels published in Pyongyang with sporting themes and based on real events provide some important insights into North Korean football. Ham Yong Gil, a former North Korean sports journalist, in his novel Comets (2003) has shown how the historic quarter-final game against Portugal in 1966 was portrayed by the regime to its people. North Korea’s 5-3 defeat was attributed ← 9 | 10 → to unfair refereeing in the match.26 An earlier novel, A Laurel Wreath (1999), by Kim Duk Chul, a former North Korean basketball player, pointed to some problems of North Korean football, such as age fraud, and also described the gloomy atmosphere in Pyongyang after the national team’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup.27 His novel provides some useful insights into how both North Korean society and its men’s football ran into difficulties after the end of the Cold War.

Two people who escaped from North Korea into the South and are now working as journalists have written of their experiences regarding North Korean society and football. They provide important evidence particularly in relation to the World Cup heroes of 1966 who experienced a dramatic reversal of fortunes when they lost favour with the regime.28 However, for the purposes of this study, the most important source of information on North Korean football was an interview with Moon Ki Nam, a former North Korean footballer and coach to both the men’s and women’s national teams, now living in Seoul. Given the difficulties in obtaining information from North Korea this was invaluable. Due to his direct and continuing involvement in North Korean football as player and coach through many years, the interview with him has allowed me to come close to the realities of North Korean football, which had been hitherto cloaked in a shroud of secrecy.29

Finally, it should be noted that there is a small body of work by foreigners relating mainly to North Korea’s 1966 World Cup heroics and how they impacted on other countries. Martin Polley, drawing on Foreign Office documentation in the British National Archives, has dealt with a thorny issue of sports diplomacy – whether the North Korea team would ← 10 | 11 → be permitted to participate in the 1966 tournament as the state which it represented was not recognized by the British government – and how this was resolved.30 What happened to the North Korean team when it arrived in England and how they were remembered was the subject of Daniel Gordon’s documentary film The Game of Their Lives (2002) which explored the reason why people in Middlesbrough, where the North Korean team was based, took their Asian visitors to their hearts.31 John Foot, in his study of Italian football, Calcio (2007), has focused on the impact of North Korea’s defeat of Italy in the qualifying stages of the tournament and the impact of this event on Italian football.32

Main themes and sources

As we have seen, the history of football has not attracted much attention in Korean academic circles. What we know about it has generally been written by sports journalists rather than historians. We should not underestimate their contribution to our understanding of the subject. Journalistic essays and newspaper articles – details of controversies, reports of matches and important anecdotal evidence – help us to grasp the intricacies of Korean football. However, the literary bias towards history written by journalists means that Korean football has not generally been regarded as an aspect of cultural history. One consequence of this is that Korean scholars, when they have turned their attention to football, have tended to overemphasize the government’s role in its development. Similarly, though it is important, too much emphasis has probably been placed on the symbolic significance ← 11 | 12 → of football in relation to the independence movement. This means that the view we have of the development of the game in Korea currently focuses on the impact of strategies devised by political leaders and squeezes out the contribution of the people involved at lower levels on and off the field. Bridging this gap is one of the aims of this study. It is also important to widen the focus of inquiry to explain, not just how and why Korean football engaged internationally, but how Korean football was seen from the perspective of other countries. This is another question that has not been adequately addressed to date. Moreover, it is now possible to take advantage of some previously unexploited sources which help to generate new perspectives, notably the accounts of North Korean exiles, such as Ju Sung Ha and Kang Chol Whan and the the oral testimony of Moon Ki Nam.

Some key themes are identified and explored in this book. The first is nationalism and regionalism in Korean football under Japanese rule. The pioneering study of Korean sports history, Lee Hak Rae’s A 100-year History of Korean Sports (2001), has underscored the argument that the Koreans, during the colonial era, tended to view any sporting victory over Japan as a form of compensation for Japanese political control. He went on to argue that sports had helped to provide the conditions in which independence movements could emerge by inculcating national consciousness into the minds of Koreans.33 It is beyond doubt that Korean sports in this period were intertwined with resistance to Japan.34 In particular, it is in this period that the people’s sense of allegiance to the Korean team became deeply rooted since football undoubtedly offered the best opportunities in sporting terms of revenging the oppression and arrogance of the Japanese ← 12 | 13 → colonizers. This sense of national identity embedded in Korean football was strong enough to make it a national pastime with an enormous following.

However, there is another defining characteristic of Korean football in the Japanese colonial period that merits our attention: the division between Pyongyang in the north and Gyungsung (Seoul) in the south, which was emphatically reflected in Korean football in particular. This split was revealed by the two separate national football tournaments entitled All Chosun Football Championships (ACFC) held at Gyungsung and Pyongyang respectively starting from 1921, and by the rivalry that was forged and developed through the Gyungsung-Pyongyang football matches from 1929, which became a popular fixture in the Korean sporting calendar. Kang has indicated that the popularity of this football match was caused by the regional enmity between the northern part and southern part of Korea. He has explained the historical and social background to this conflict, indicating the contrasting social milieu of the two cities.35

There is some published work on the nature of this rivalry. The Gyungsung-Pyongyang football match was chronicled in detail by Yun and Choi in A National Pastime: Football and its Bright Morning (1997).36 Meanwhile Ohshima has focused on the football culture of Pyongyang, explaining why and how Pyongyang came to be a real football city.37 It is important to assess the phenomenon of regionalism in Korean football which co-existed with nationalism at a time when the Korean people had to bear the brunt of Japanese imperialism. Whilst the relationship between football and nationalism was undoubtedly important, many patriotic Koreans were also entangled with internal, inter-regional rivalry in football and in other spheres at the same time. The published diaries of Yun Chi Ho, especially for the years 1921 to 1943, and recent work by Kim Sang Tae in 1988 are particularly important in this regard because they explain the extent to which Korean intellectuals were concerned with this ← 13 | 14 → schism.38 The importance of this theme also justifies the extent to which the three major newspapers under Japanese rule, Donga Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo, and Chosun Joongang Ilbo have been relied upon rather heavily in this study because these dailies were the sponsors of the Gyungsung-Pyongyang football matches and the two ACFC. The dual purpose of Korean football functioning simultaneously as the focal point for national identity and inter-regional rivalry has parallels elsewhere, such as rugby union in Wales. While great significance was accorded to defeating any team from England from the late Victorian period onwards, rugby in Wales was also marked by an intensive inter-regional contest, notably between the south-west and south-east, as Smith and Williams have indicated.39

However, it also has to be recognized that the importance of domestic football in terms of its popularity waned over the course of the second half of the twentieth century. How can we explain this phenomenon? Firstly, the North and South Koreans have been obsessed with their international fixtures, especially matches between their respective national teams and thus the inter-regional rivalry between Gyungsung and Pyongyang dating from the colonial times was effectively transformed into a contest between the national teams of rival nation-states. Moreover, within the Cold War context, the two nations tended to regard the football pitch as a surrogate battlefield. Thus the result of the Korean Derby was often regarded as a visibly critical measure of national prestige by the hostile regimes. It was for this reason that the respective political leaderships of North and South Korea intervened heavily in football and always paid great attention to the development of their national teams. Indeed, initiatives aimed at enhancing elite football skills in the two countries have often stemmed from their respective governments. Football has served a useful purpose in helping to raise the status of both North and South Korea, not least ← 14 | 15 → because it offered a number of prestigious international stages, including the World Cup, the Olympics and the Asian Games, on which political, economic or ideological superiority could be demonstrated. In addition, the deep-seated, traditional rivalry with Japan provided a supplementary reason for governments to inject resources into the development of their national team.


VI, 280
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (December)
Football FIFA World Cup Korea
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. VI, 280 pp., 2 coloured ill., 8 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Jong Sung Lee (Author)

Jong Sung Lee is a professor of sports industry and management at Hanyang University in Seoul and obtained his doctoral degree in Sports History and Culture from De Montfort University in Leicester, UK.


Title: A History of Football in North and South Korea c.1910–2002
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
294 pages