Football is hardly synonymous with North Korea, yet in Han Kwang Song the country has a super talent embroiled in his nation’s political crisis.
In a conference room in Perugia, Liverpool’s chief scout, Barry Hunter, was in the midst of an ardent presentation. As always he waited carefully to deliver his final punchline. The trump card which made everyone gleam and mouths collapse.
‘You’ll get to meet Steven Gerrard.’
Han Kwang Song, sat in silence. For a moment there was an awkward pause.
The Liverpool scout waited in anticipation.
But he received nothing back. Han sat there with a blank expression.
‘The scout said: do you know Steven Gerrard?,’ Mauro Costorella of Perugia’s ISM Academy, recalls Exclusively to First Time Finish.
Han shook his head.
‘The scout was very surprised, he said: How is it possible you don’t know Steven Gerrard? The scout turned around and said it was the first time he showed a picture of Gerrard to someone and they did not instantly go “wow”.’
Both sides could see the funny side of it.
‘Everyone was laughing and Han was saying ‘sorry, sorry.’ But that is what Han is like, he only thinks about playing football,’ Mauro says fondly of his former protégé.
The moment was one of many where Han Kwang Song’s extraordinary talent collided with his native origins.
The North Korean forward hails from one of the most repressive regimes in the world. He is one of the few emigrants permitted to live outside of his country. As a result, his career has often suffered due to the ambiguous nature between North Korea’s relation to the rest of the world.
But just how exactly does a North Korean even make it as far as Perugia?
Han Kwang Song’s story is fraught with political complexities.
To begin you have to go back to the early 2010s.
Back in 2012, the North Korean football federation sought to find a suitable European academy where the country’s best prospects could develop and learn from their European counterparts.
Han’s generation was one of the first and so far only generation to benefit from foreign influence.
‘In the beginning the North Korean federation had an agreement with an academy in Spain, but the players only stayed there for one year, and they came to us instead,’ Mauro Costorella says.
North Korea and Italy’s football relationship dates all the way back to 1966.
At the World Cup hosted by England, the two nations’ faced each other on Tyneside. North Korea, who were very much the underdogs, came out as the surprise winners and it has seemingly left an indelible mark on the two nations.
In recent decades, Italian politician, Antonio Razzi has developed strong ties with the North Korean government and has visited the country several times. He even had the chance to meet the country’s 1966 World Cup hero, Pak Doo Ik, and he was influential in establishing the relationship between Mauro Costorella’s ISM Academy and the North Korean government.
‘It was a project made through Antonio Razzi and Alessandro Dominici, president of ISM’s academy.’ Mauro Costorella says. ‘The North Korean federation were looking for a European academy to develop the players. In Italy we offered them what they were looking for, education VISAs and opportunity to be scouted.’
An Impressive team
‘Our delegation represented by Alessandro Dominici went to North Korea in 2014,’ Mauro Costorella remembers. ‘We had the intention to find the best talent.’
One might be dubious about the level of quality in an isolated country like North Korea but the ISM delegation were impressed with what they saw.
‘Technically they (the North Korean players) were perfect. We did not have much to teach the players in that regard, but tactically we taught them a lot.’
In the end, ISM brought back an entire team. Han Kwang Song was among them.
‘We brought them here to a boarding school, they were given Italian lessons and accommodation. They went to school in the morning and then came to us to train in the afternoon. ‘
The boys were used to travelling and living abroad. They spent months in Barcelona training with the Marcet Academy in 2013, as well as travelling to countries in prestigious tournaments like the AFC Cup. Those experiences helped them to settle early into their new environment.
It wasn’t long before ISM’s team of North Koreans started to attract attention. First in Perugia. Then across the nation and shortly all over Europe.
‘We played games everywhere,’ Mauro recalls. ‘We played against beating Red Bull Salzburg and Genoa and everywhere we went people were impressed.’
The plucky North Korean team, showed they were no pushovers. Often getting the better of their opponents. Even against professional adults twice their age.
‘We went to play against a Serie C team, Maceratese, they were a side fighting for promotion, we drew 1-1 and they scored from a penalty. Our players were only 16 and 17 years old, it was really impressive.’
They also drew with Inter Milan’s Primavera side who were one of the best in the country at the time. They always put on a show.’
The team even caught the eye of Champions League and World Cup winner, Marco Materazzi.
‘Materazzi lives in Perugia, so he liked to come to our games,’ Mauro says.
Mauro still remembers the former World Cup winner’s reaction when he saw the players for the first time.
The North Korean team were playing a rondo to warm-up. Materazzi’s jaws dropped at the sight.
‘He turned to me and said: “I have never ever seen such a fast rondo with my own eyes.” You were not able to see the ball. You don’t even see that kind of speed at a top club.’
‘The ball went from right to the left, and the player in the middle could not get near it.’
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A humble boy
Even amongst such quality, Han Kwang Song stood out from the rest.
Costorella, who took Han under his wing and even lived with the young man for two years, saw tremendous potential in the forward.
‘Han was like a number nine with a fit of a number ten. He was very fast, one of the fastest players of his generation but at the same time he was a technical striker. The only thing he lacked was his finishing, because in North Korea the concentration was on the technical aspects like keeping possession and playing as a team.’
It was not just his quality on the pitch which caught Mauro and Alessandro Dominici’s eyes. Han’s professionalism away from matches was exactly what he looked for from his players.
‘He was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. He always put in the maximum, it did not matter if they were playing a friendly match or if it was Monday or Tuesday.’
But what about off the pitch? This was a boy coming from a rigidly controlled society. How did he adapt to the liberal and consumerist nature of a western country like Italy?
Mauro Costorella has the answer.
‘He was an ordinary young man. He liked to hang out with his friends, to go shopping. But he never drank alcohol or went to party in clubs. He understood the type of lifestyle he needed to practise to become a professional.
Even when he went to Cagliari and everyone was talking about him and he got a bit famous, he still remained humble. Every time we went to the cinema and people spotted him, he was always available to take pictures.’
If you brought them to do shopping or to eat Japanese food like sushi, Han and his friends were the happiest people in the world. Shopping and sushi was like a prize for them.’
Han’s humility came from his upbringing. There is no way of knowing the exact nature of his lifestyle growing up in North Korea, but it clearly left its mark.
‘He always remembered where he came from. He was from a normal family of workers. Everything he did and is doing now is for them. His dream is to be remembered in North Korea and Europe.’
The Italian life style clearly rubbed off on the young man too. Han found a new home in the Western world according to Mauro.
‘If you spoke to him, he’d tell you I’m North Korean, but I’m Italian as well. He lived here for four years, he can speak the language and cook Italian food.’
A star is born
Clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City were both close to signing Han Kwang Song according to Mauro Costorella. However in the end, the political circumstances surrounding Han’s homeland intervened in those deals.
It was Cagliari who ultimately signed the young man.
And it did not take long for Han to settle into his new professional environment.
‘When he went to Cagliari, he travelled there at 2pm. He ate a little bit and then he went to train with the Primavera team. The first day he scored a hat-trick in a friendly training match. So they sent him to the first team,’ Mauro recalls proudly.
‘In one of the first sessions with the first team, he scored in practise and he nutmegged Bruno Alves.’
Han was still only 18 years of age. His ability to show such fearlessness caught the eye straight away.
‘Han did not care who he was playing against, he just wanted to do well.’
Mauro tells me one of Cagliari’s first team players, Daniel Desssena, was so impressed he told the club director he would buy Han himself with his own money if the director decided not to sign him.
‘He scored a bicycle goal in one of his first games for the U19s and from that moment he was with the first team.’
In 2017, at just 18, Han Kwang Song became the first North Korean to score in the Serie A.
In the end Cagliari sent him on loan to AC Perugia where Han Kwang Song scored a hat-trick on his debut. He scored 11 goals and handed out 5 assists in 39 games for the Serie B outfit and it was enough to attract worldwide attention.
Some of the biggest clubs in the world vied for his services. Most clubs were deterred by the political ramifications behind a potential deal. But Juventus saw enough risk to make a tentative loan move in 2019.
Mauro Costorella kept in constant contact with his former player. He remembers it was a frustrating time for Han.
‘At Juventus, Sarri really liked him. Han was always training with the first team and he got called up to the Serie A squad against Lecce, but then of course the political problems happened.’
Sadly, political problems are a recurrent theme in Han’s career.
The UN has placed heavy sanctions on the North Korean regime right from the beginning of Han’s journey in Italy. Those sanctions are intended to suppress North Korea’s current nuclear project. It has had an impact on many North Korean citizens living abroad due to the precarious nature of their earnings.
‘The North Korean regime sends thousands of workers abroad to work on construction sites around Russia and other places,’ Martyn Williams, a North Korean expert from 38 North and the Stimson Centre, explains.
‘It’s estimated the state takes about 80% of their wages. They have no choice. With Han, it could be similar. If the state demands the money, he really has no choice.’
This is where things become murky. If the UN’s estimates are correct, Han’s wages paid by a club like Juventus could inadvertently help fund the North Korean nuclear program. It is why the UN have urged its nations to deport all their North Korean immigrants.
One must understand why Han’s current contract is thus hugely problematic and something that could not be overlooked by the UN.
Violating UN laws could impose major financial strife and sanctions on Han’s potential future clubs.
Han’s recent transfer to Juventus in January 2020 is the perfect example.
The UN immediately intervened and threatened sanctions. Six days later, Juventus were forced into selling their new North Korean recruit to Qatar based outfit, Al-Duhail.
Despite impressive outings for Al-Duhail. Han made four goal contributions in seven starts and helped Al-Duhail lift the Qatar Super League. Han Kwang Song’s career has hit yet another dead-end.
His recent transfer to Qatar was found to have violated UN sanctions. As a result, Han has been unable to play since September and has not been included in Al Duhail’s squad for the current season.
‘We talk almost everyday. I think he will move to another country where he can play, there is talk of Malaysia,’ Mauro Costorello tells me. ‘He is willing to go anywhere to play.’
In a recent report by the UN, Han Kwang Song insists in official documents that he won’t send any of his earnings back to the North Korean regime. Sadly there can be no proof of his words.
Even to Mauro and ISM director Alessandro Dominici, the exact nature of Han’s relationship with the North Korean government is a mystery.
‘The relationship with the player we did not know, it was something personal with the federation. But he never had problem with VISAs to travel back home and to travel here.’
In most likelihood Han is simply a victim. A mere pawn in a complex political game.
At the core, he is a super-talent who should be playing in one of the top five leagues in the world. Through no fault of his own, his career has sadly been stifled by a political situation which is unlikely to end any time soon.
On an individual basis it’s hard not to sympathise.
Sadly, it is the unfortunate harsh reality Han and many of his countryman have to live with.
Mauro Costorella hopes things will change soon and more North Koreans will get the opportunity to make a name for themselves in Europe.
ISM’s relationship with the North Korean Federation has waned in recent years but there are still hopes it can be reinstated.
‘We went to scout the players of the 2001 generation. There were some incredible players, but sadly their tutor died and the players did not come. Still we are always in touch with the federation.’
For Han, the future is a mystery. His story is an intriguing tale of talent and political strife.
At 22 years of age, he has plenty of time to realise his dreams. And one must hope, his abundance of potential will not go to waste.
But if it does, the football world will be robbed of an extraordinary player.
For more insight on North Korean football, this article on the Bleacher Report by James Montague is highly recommended.