People used to call
us "spies" because
we always stuck together

What it's like to be a professional football player in North Korea

In Hana, dul, sed ... (One, two, three ...), we decided to portray four players of the DPRK’s national women’s football team and, to be honest, Ri Hyang Ok wasn’t one of them. Out of a group of approximately 20 women who you basically don’t know and appear at first to have similar traits, how do you make a choice?

We based it on gut feeling: I fell for the goalie, Ri Jong Hi, while my camera woman spotted the number 10, the up and coming attacking star, Jin Pyol Hi. Third was the small defender with the “dirty voice”, number 6, Ra Mi Ae, simply because she was a “character” who stood out. But the number 19, Ri Hyang Ok, wasn’t all that striking at first sight: not in a special position on the field, not the brawny missile – although 2.8 inches taller than Jin Pyol Hui she weighed 2 kilos less and looked rather fragile. How wrong we were! The midfielder and playmaker of her team she was the only one to play the full length of all three matches of the two World Cups – 1999 and 2003 – which the DPRK team participated in during her active career.

Luckily, when we first shot in Pyongyang, she was frequently around, because she and defender Ra Mi Ae were best friends, and so she became the 4th protagonist in the film and completed our lucky clover of players, one from each position, that were portrayed in the film. “People used to call us “spies” because we always stuck together” she said about her friendship to Ra Mi Ae. Some of the other defenders on the team complained that she spent too much effort defending Ra Mi Ae’s position rather than the others when the latter broke into attack “Probably that’s true”, Hyang Ok said.

Straight after her active career she aimed to become an international referee and as a first step had to learn English: “I was bottom of the class at the Pyongyang University for Foreign Studies”, she says, “It was so hard for me. During sports I never had a nosebleed – you get that when you are very strained and in the national team quite some players had it every now and again when training became too hard for them, but not me. However, during studies I suddenly had a nosebleed. When I saw the blood I thought: wow, this really stresses you out!” Just as she fought to become a footballer, (when she was still a little girl her parents locked her in at home because they had different plans for their daughter’s life) she fought for her new goal. Just like the Korean saying, ‘impossible is not a Korean word’, she made it.

Ri Hyang Ok is today the only referee from DPRK to officiate at World Cup level. She is highly respected among the international colleagues and last year FIFA featured her as aiming for 'the rare double-double', because she is the only referee having participated in two World Cups as a player and another two as a referee. In that interview she said: “Football is something that I simply find wonderful. Being a player in the stadium was my whole world. I felt free-spirited and liberated, and it was a feeling that I wanted to keep hold of. As a referee, I can sense the excitement and the emotions of the players, and feel what the spectators are feeling. It’s really special." Her biggest passion today is to officiate at World Cup finals. In 2015 in Canada she made it up to the “small finals”, the 3rd/4th place game Germany vs. England. Let’s see what France 2019 holds for the ambitious fighter.

You can watch Hana, Dul, Sed... on GuideDoc.

Read about Ri Hyang Ok's adventures at the 2019 World Cup.

This article is by Brigitte Weich, director of Hana, Dul, Sed..., speaking to Koryo Tours.

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