Reporting from Beijing and Seoul — World Cup soccer officials are investigating reports that North Korea's outmatched national soccer team faced punishment by government officials back home after losing all three of its matches in South Africa.
Sepp Blatter, president of the International Federation of Association Football, or Fifa, said this week that the organization had received tips that players and coaches "have been condemned or punished" after an embarrassing appearance in which they conceded the most goals of all 32 teams in the tournament.
World soccer officials have sent a letter to the North Korean football federation about the allegations. "The first step is the federation and we'll see what the answer will be, and then we can elaborate on that," Blatter told reporters in Singapore on Wednesday.
In June, television images showed a dejected North Korean coach Kim Jong-Hun consoling players after the team was trounced 7-0 by Portugal, the last of three demoralizing losses. Playing in the tournament for the first time since 1966, the team had previously suffered defeats to Brazil and Ivory Coast.
Radio Free Asia reported that the team -- except for Japan-born Jong Tae-se and Ahn Young-hak -- was summoned to Pyongyang for "harsh ideological criticism." The report added that the players were ordered to reprimand Coach Kim, who was then sentenced to hard labor for the team's failings.
The players also faced a public scolding by more than 400 students and sports fans, according to reports.
North Korea's state-run news service has been silent about the allegations, which the radio station said were made by unidentified sources in North Korea and a Chinese businessman described as knowledgeable about North Korea affairs.
Soccer officials also considered claims made by Chung Mong-Joon, the former Hyundai chairman and president of the South Korean Football Association. Reached in Seoul on Thursday, South Korean soccer officials said they have no information about their counterparts in the north.
Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammad bin Hammam this week told reporters that he spoke to four North Korean players last month, and that they did not mention mistreatment.
"There was an unconfirmed report that these players have gone through torture or something like that, butÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â‚ÃƒÂ‚Ã‚Â…I haven't seen anything with my eyes or heard anything with my ears," he said.
The team's poor showing publicly embarrassed the officials in the secretive state, who had planned to ban the broadcast of the live soccer games to avoid ridicule.
But after the close 2-1 loss to Brazil, state TV made the Portugal match its first live sports broadcast ever.
The torture of disgraced national athletes has precedent. Saddam Hussein's eldest son Uday reportedly tortured members of Iraq's national soccer team following embarrassing losses.
One analyst on North Korean said Thursday that that punishing sports players and coaches for poor performances was a low to which even Kim Jong-il would not stoop.
"I don't think the North Korean government, however a despotic state it may be, would do such a thing resulting from an outcome of a football match," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
"I'm sure there could have been precedence of such punishment, but I'm not aware of any."
Kim is a researcher in the Times' Seoul bureau