South Korea’s soccer team added to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “discomfort,” beating their rivals 1-0 in the Asian Games final late yesterday.
The game -- won by the South Koreans with a goal in the second period of extra time -- was the first time the countries had met in the final of the competition since 1978. That game ended in a 0-0 draw and both teams shared the gold medal.
Some North and South Korean players kneeled with their heads buried in the field after the referee blew the final whistle to end the 120-minute-long match. North Korean coach Yun Jung Su protested the goal while some of his players wept alongside South Koreans jumping up and down in a circle, live footage from South Korean broadcaster KBS showed.
“Our players poured out every bit of mental and physical strength,” Yun said at a press conference following the match, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo said. “Fair refereeing is needed from now on. Host countries shouldn’t be favored.”
Kim, whose undisclosed illness has kept him out of the public gaze for weeks, may have watched from a hospital bed. A South Korean newspaper reported this week he’d been hospitalized after surgery amid speculation he has gout.
Kim “personally provided instructions” to the squad before it left for the Games in the South Korean city of Incheon, senior Olympic official Son Kwang Ho told the official Korean Central News Agency in August. While yesterday’s encounter was just a game, Kim has previously threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
The North Korean women’s team fared better, defeating Japan 3-1 for the gold medal on Oct. 1. Kim Kwang Min, the women’s coach, said the “supreme leader” gave his squad tips on “things even experts were unaware of,” Yonhap News reported.
“The enormous care and love of respected Marshall Kim Jong Un is the source of the strength of our women’s soccer,” the coach said.
The soccer tournament featured Under-23 players, with three over-age wild card berths permitted. In an extra incentive for the South Korean players, victory exempts them from conscription to the nation’s military.
Kim took power in the North after his father died of a heart attack in late 2011. He’s a target of intense scrutiny because he exerts dynastic rule on a regime with 1.2 million troops and a nuclear weapons program.
The country’s third nuclear test last year further worsened relations between the two Koreas, which remain technically at war in lieu of a peace treaty after the 1950-53 Korean War.
Before the Games, conservative South Korean activists criticized organizers for flying North Korean flags on the streets outside stadiums, prompting officials to take them down. The North had earlier canceled a plan to send cheerleaders to the Games after talks on arrangements collapsed. Even so, the isolated nation stuck to a pledge to send about 150 athletes to the event.
While information on Kim, including his age, is scant, he’s made clear his enthusiasm for sports. Last year, he invited former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman to watch a basketball game together.
Kim, who has walked with a limp in recent months, has appeared more overweight than ever in official footage, and his “chain-smoking” habit got worse, Koh Yu Hwan, a North Korea professor at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said by phone.
In an unusual acknowledgment, North Korean state television said last month he was experiencing “discomfort,” and South Korea’s Yonhap News reported he is believed to be suffering from gout.