Having spent his entire club career in Japan, Jong Tae-Se is no ordinary North Korean. His father actually hails from the southern part of the Korean peninsula but, under the influence of his mother, Jong chose to attend schools run by North Korean communities.
After watching his adopted country go down 2-1 at the hands of Japan in February 2005 during qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the then senior at Korea University in Tokyo set his sights on one day donning the Chollima jersey. He went on to join Kawasaki Frontale in the J.League the following year, becoming the first professional footballer to graduate from his college.
However, there remained a few obstacles in his path. Jong is technically a South Korean because of the nationality of his father, and he was not permitted to represent Korea DPR until he acquired a North Korean passport. This was eventually achieved with the help of Joson Football Association, a North Korean organisation for the footballers based in Japan, ahead of the qualifying for the 2008 EAFF East Asian Championship.
Big World, big talent
His dream finally came true on 19 June 2007, when he made his first appearance for Korea DPR in a qualifier against Mongolia. Jong marked the occasion by firing a five-minute hat-trick in the first half before adding another goal in the second period, and then went on to score four more goals against Macau two days later.
It did not take long for Jong to establish himself in the Chollima’s starting XI, as the robust striker opened the scoring in a 1-1 draw with Japan at the tournament proper in February 2008. By the time he netted another goal against neighbours Korea Republic, Jong had already become the talk of the peninsula.
His parents, who gave him the name Tae-Se – literally 'Big World' in English - had long held the dream that their son would find his way to bigger stages and, sure enough, Jong was a key figure as Korea DPR reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa.
“The goal I have had ever since I became a professional athlete was to play football abroad within three years, but four and a half years have already passed,” Jong recently told FIFA in an exclusive interview. “But I think this global competition, the World Cup, would be a good opportunity to further show myself to the world, and I will try to do so.”
Belief and determination
The Chollima are in Group G with five-time world champions Brazil, Portugal and Côte d’Ivoire, but Jong believes that the North Koreans have nothing to fear despite landing in arguably the tournament's toughest section.
“We think that we got a difficult group, but there is not one among us who thinks that we stand no chance at all, and we all play believing that we will win,” he said. “There’s no doubt that it will be difficult, but we believe that if we become one and play our matches, there’s no one we cannot beat. So in our coming matches against Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast we will combine our strength and be victorious.”
And if Jong's belief proves to be justified, the Chollima could find themselves emulating the giant-killing feat of their iconic predecessors at England 1966. “It has been 44 years since we went to the World Cup. And just like the last time, perhaps by fate, we are again playing against Portugal,” Jong added. “Times have changed and the level of football has gone up since then. But like that time, we are determined to amaze people, to spring another surprise.”