Quick Reads

Han Kwang-song: North Korea’s Wonderkid Held Back by Politics

As the domestic leagues across Europe come to a close this month, most fans and clubs begin to cast a watchful eye towards the summer transfer window. A likely deluge of ‘Welcome to….’ videos will commence on YouTube. It’s par for the course and allows us all to give an answer when our mates ask, “so what do you think of so-and-so, then?” Statistical law means most of the videos end up as nice montages but not accurate indications of transfers and destinations.

One of last year’s medleys, though not materialising, was at least founded on truth. The first North Korean to score in Italy’s Serie A, striker Han Kwang-song was being tipped for a move to Juventus last summer and his agent confirmed talks were held.

“I talked about him with [Walter] Sabatini when he worked at Inter. There were several clubs interested,” agent Sandro Stemperini told Calcio Mercato in October 2018. “There are always a lot of requests for information, but contact is one thing and a formal meeting is another. That only happened with Juventus.”

As Stemperini alluded to, the Serie A giants were not the only club interested in signing Cagliari’s Kwang-song – just the only one to formalise their interest into discussions. Also purportedly interested in the 20-year old, according to the agent, were Liverpool, Spurs, and an unnamed German club.

“There are several officials, from Germany. It’s normal that several clubs ask about him because he is a youngster who is playing very well, who here in Italy is being followed by Juventus, an important club. It’s normal for everyone to talk to me.”

Born in the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang, Kwang-song spent part of his youth development at an academy in Barcelona, before returning to his homeland to continue his training. With a playing style likened to Luis Suarez, he has been offering a modest goal return since moving to Italy in 2013.

Starting out at the ISM Academy in Corciano, Italy, Kwang-song was surrounded by his countrymen who have been brought to the country in bulk since the academy was founded. That year’s intake was fifteen-strong. One such example is Choe Song-hyok. Just a year older than Kwang-song, he was at Fiorentina for his final years of youth football, having joined from ISM. Less successful than Hwang-song, the midfielder has already found himself dropping down the Italian football pyramid, now in Serie C with Arezzo, having been sold just 12 months into his 3-year contract with Perugia.

When he signed for the Serie B club, they also brought Hwang-song in on a season-long loan from Cagliari. Perhaps initially signed to keep his international colleague company, it ended up being Hwang-song that made an impression. Scoring 7 goals in 17 league games, the quick forward made an incredible start, scoring an impressive six goals and an assist in the first 11, with a hattrick against Virtus Entella on his debut.

After such an eye-catching start to life in Europe, it was more of a surprise than disbelief that he hadn’t signed for one of the more illustrious clubs that ISM Academy Director Allesandro Dominici claims were interested in him.

“[That was] a bit of an awkward situation,” Dominici told the New York Times, recalling a meeting in 2015 in which Liverpool scouts visited the academy to entice a teenage Kwang-song. Allegedly, on being told of their famous captain Steven Gerrard, the North Korean teenager enquired as to who that was. But they weren’t the only club who were intrigued by the 5’11 tall striker. Also making contact with the academy before Kwang-song eventually signed for Cagliari, were Fiorentina and Manchester City.

The ISM Academy has an exclusive relationship with the North Korean FA, by which they hold the sole right to scout and train the country’s best young talent. Each year, scouts from the Academy head to Pyongyang to headhunt the next bunch of players and to date Han Kwang-song is their poster boy. It sounds like an unorthodox situation but that is because it is. It isn’t, however, unique.

In 1999, a failed joint enterprise between the Cuban FA and German fourth-tier side Bonner SC saw 15 of Cuba’s national teams join at once. However, many other clubs, as well as the German FA, were not happy with the deal, and despite it being legal and above board, the president of Cologne denied the Cubans visas and, although they played a number of friendlies for the club, they had to return before a ball was kicked competitively.

A few did stay, securing visas through the conventional methods, and went on to have modest careers in the lower reaches of the German football pyramid. With that, Cuba’s impact on European football was finished for well over a decade.

The ISM has faced similar governmental intrusion, but not by the country that turn of phrase would suggest. Former club teammate and international colleague Choe Song-hyok found his youth contract with Fiorentina under investigation. Two members of the Italian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies initiated it due to the concerns they had as regards to whether international sanctions placed on the transfer of money to North Korea had been broken and whether his human rights were being upheld.

The investigation proved everything was above board and when the issue was put to Dominici and his colleagues at ISM, their replies were unequivocal. “TVs, cellphones, YouTube,” replied coach Luis Pomares, “they have access to everything.”

Speaking at the 2018 CONIFA Football World Cup, An Yong-Hak, a former North Korean international who represented the country in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup, told James Hendicott, “the articles in the western media that the players were sent to the mines after South Africa are not true. The goalkeeper that played with me is still the national team’s goalkeeper. He wouldn’t be if he was sent to the mines.”

Yong-hak was at the CONIFA tournament as the manager of the United Koreans in Japan team and Hendicott was there chronicling it all for his tremendous account of CONIFA and its competition in ‘CONIFA: Football for the Forgotten – the Untold Story of Football’s Alternative World Cup.’

“Kim Jong Un is a young leader and very interested in football, [he] supports the country. The western media is very negative about him. I hope that some more positive news will reach the world.”

What the Chamber of Deputies were really interested in was the player’s tax affairs, and despite no findings to give them cause for a grievance, it is likely a problem that will hinder Kwang-song’s career in equal measure. The worry is that much of the salary North Korean footballers receive will be heavily taxed by the North Korean government.

James Montague, sportswriter and author, told Copa90 that “if the player isn’t in charge of his bank account and that money is going straight back into the regime under a very strict sanctions regime then they might be contravening international sanctions, which brings a whole new level of bureaucratic [involvement], huge fines, probably even prison sentences.”

The discussion surrounding the possible directions Kwang-song’s wages go once he has been paid smacks of double standards and again resonates with the situation Cuba’s migrant footballers find themselves in.

Since a 2016 ruling, players who leave Cuba with the government’s blessings are expected to pay taxes to Cuba out of their salary, whilst those who desert avoid doing so by proxy. Many Cubans feel deserters have betrayed their nation, using the training Cuba gave them as a tool for their own economic gain, and detractors deem the rumoured tax level of 50% to be unfairly high and use it as evidence of an authoritarian state.

However, it is worth noting that the US government apply the same sort of rules on their migrant workers, affecting their respective young footballing stars Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie, for example. “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside,” states the Internal Revenue Service government website. Failure to pay results in passports being – and thus the option to return – lost. The Foreign Earned Income Exclusion amount is $103,900, meaning any amount above that threshold will be liable to the American taxing system. For the majority of football players in Europe’s top flights, that is earned within two weeks. It is a hypocritical stance, to say the least.

With Onel Hernandez’s Norwich promoted to the Premier League this month, the division is set to host its first ever Cuban footballer, but given the aforementioned intricacies, will he ever – despite his unquestionable talent and right to – be capped? In November, he was called up by the head coach of the international team and reported for duty, training with the squad. However, the government prevented him from playing the fixture and it is likely his finances were a case in point -Hernandez grew up in Germany having left Cuba legally as a child.

It is not a situation Han Kwang-song has found himself in. He has played at various youth levels for his country and has two caps for the senior side. In January’s AFC Asian Cup, the young striker got a blot on his otherwise pristine copybook, as he was sent off in the first half of their 4-0 defeat at the hands of Saudi Arabia.

With unquestionable talent – skill, speed and scoring ability – it is likely only politics will hold Kwang-song back from having a successful top-flight career in Europe.

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About the author

Jordan Florit

Jordan is an insatiable reader, as well as a writer. Books on Latin America, politics, psychology, sociology and psychology take up the space left on his shelf after those on football have had their pride of place. It is these topics that influence his writing, where he likes to skirt the main topic of football with culture, demography, and trends. His favourite author is British sports journalist Jonathan Wilson.