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She fled North Korea but cheers on its team in the World Cup

Ideological differences fall away as Koreans from the North and the South gather in Los Angeles' Koreatown to watch the squad's game with Brazil.

June 16, 2010|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

It was a land she risked everything to flee.

She waded through the roaring currents of the Tumen River before sunrise, ducking below the surface of the icy water each time the floodlights approached. She walked the seemingly endless span of China into Vietnam, across Cambodia and into Thailand, where she boarded a plane and breathed a sigh of relief. Along the way, she lost contact with her younger sister, her only surviving family member.

Yet Tuesday, Yoon Hui Kim found herself feeling nostalgic for her homeland of North Korea, sitting in a bustling Koreatown food court and cheering for the communist nation as its soccer team, in its first World Cup match since 1966, put up a valiant fight against Brazil.

"As much as I dislike the regime, I can't hate my homeland," said the 30-year-old Kim, who left the border city of Hoeryong and crossed into China nine years ago, a choice she said was a matter of survival. She had high hopes for a goal from Japan-born star striker Jong Tae-se, despite the odds of the lowest-ranked team that qualified for the tournament going up against the highest-ranked.

"It makes me feel, now more than ever, that I am indeed North Korean," she said, speaking in Korean with a near-perfect Seoul accent.

Kim was one of a handful of North Korean defectors who quietly watched Tuesday's game at a Koreatown mall, inconspicuous among a crowd mostly of South Koreans also rooting for their brethren to the north despite escalating political tensions on the Korean peninsula. There were no chants, no flags, no T-shirts with North Korea's colors. One family of refugees with two young girls abruptly left at the sight of a photojournalist's camera.

Dressed fashionably in a tiered black skirt, wedge sandals and large hoop earrings, Kim arrived about halfway through the first half of the game, having cut class at California International University to watch the match. She greeted other North Koreans she recognized. She said it was a strange feeling cheering on her homeland from a nation she was taught to despise while growing up

"Even a tie would be great," she said, watching from the edge of her seat, her eyes fixed on the projection screen as she nervously played with her spoon while her lunch of spicy stew and rice grew cold. She let out a shriek each time Brazil's players made a goal attempt.

As she watched North Korea keep Brazil at bay, the score at 0-0 through the first half, Kim said she was flooded with memories of home. She pictured her elementary school classroom and her sister's face. She recalled the hopelessness she felt at age 21 because of her family's lowly place in North Korea's social caste system, which led her to flee.

Still, Kim, who graduated from college in South Korea and came to the U.S. seven months ago to study, said she hopes to someday return home.

Ten minutes into the second half, Brazil slid in a goal from the right, then 15 minutes later scored again, to a collective groan from the crowd. Kim bit her lower lip, then began gnawing on a fingernail. Nevertheless, she remained proud of the fight the North Korean team was putting up.

"They're No. 1 in FIFA rankings, but doesn't it seem like they're struggling?" she remarked of the Brazilian team and referring to the international soccer organization.

As the clock neared game's end, she grew wistful: "I wish they would score just one goal...."

Just then, North Korean midfielder Ji Yun-nam sent the ball flying above a defender's foot and the goalkeeper's hand, sinking it into the Brazilian goal. The crowd jumped up with a roar. Kim gave a subdued smile.

The crowd was giddy with a renewed excitement in the last minutes, particularly when Jong, the striker, attempted a shot that sailed above the goal. But the attempt at the upset ended with Brazil taking the game 2-1.

"They did good," Kim said before walking away.

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