Having reached the final in each of the two previous editions of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, Korea DPR are no longer a mysterious entity at this age level. The North Koreans emerged from virtual obscurity to win the tournament on their debut at Russia 2006 before finishing runners-up at Chile 2008.
With the fabulous trio from the class of 2006 - Kim Kyong Hwa, Hong Myong Gum and Kil Son Hui – having graduated to take part in the FIFA Women’s World Cup the following year, it was natural that the cream of the 2008 crop, including Ra Un Sim, Ri Hyon Suk and Ri Ye Gyong, should also progress to the senior ranks. And so it has proved, with all three set to participate in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which kicks off next week.
The man who has masterminded the North Koreans’ successes in Russia and Chile and who played a pivotal role in the transition of the golden generation is coach Choe Kwang Sok, who is set to make his third trip to the world finals this summer. At the beginning of the North Korean fairy tale in 2006, Choe had told FIFA.com: “Up to seven of these players could be lining up for the senior national team in the very near future. This could be the perfect opportunity to prove to the senior manager that, in a year from now, they’ll be ready to move up a category and help the country.”
His prediction proved to be correct, and has been repeated ahead of this year’s latest edition of the U-20 showpiece. The current crop of young players came into prominence at the AFC U-16 Women’s Championship in 2007, where forward Yun Hyon Hi struck seven goals to become the tournament’s top scorer and MVP as the North Koreans lifted their first Asian trophy. Yun was subsequently called up to the senior national team for that summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup along with attacking midfielder Ho Un Byol, although the promising duo could not make an appearance at China 2007.
However, Yun and Ho were to play decisive roles again for their country, scoring two goals apiece at the inaugural FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup the following year. Korea DPR were ultimately crowned champions in New Zealand, with striker Jon Myong Hwa stealing the show with four goals that earned her the adidas Bronze Boot. However, for all these prodigious attacking players, the North Koreans could not have maintained their unbeaten run without flawless organisation and strong determination.
An team almost identical to the New Zealand 2008 champions reunited for last year’s AFC U-19 Women’s Championship under the guidance of Choe. Although they won all three group matches, scoring 13 unanswered goals, the defending Asian champions lost 1-0 to Japan in the semi-finals. However, they duly accomplished their mission by qualifying for Germany 2010, with Ho heading home the only goal of the game against hosts China PR to claim third place.
Despite failing to retain the continental title, Choe remains optimistic about the task ahead. “If you analyse our team some of the players are physically good but technically they need to prepare more,” he said. “Our task is to beat the European teams [at the finals] so our goal is to win in the name of Asia.”
Korea DPR find themselves in Group B with South American champions Brazil, European runners-up Sweden and Oceanian queens New Zealand. It is a tough section, but with talent at their disposal and Choe at the helm, another North Korean triumph cannot be written off.