He exploded into the global football conscience so fast it was hard not to consider that North Korea might have produced its first superstar. The Observer, after all, labelled him “the People’s Rooney”. Heading into the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, we were told he would score a goal a game – against the likes of Brazil and Portugal no less. His name was Jong Tae-se, the talismanic frontman who had shot his country to its first World Cup appearance since 1966.
Unfortunately, he failed to deliver, and an anticipated move from Japanese football to one of the top European leagues manifestly failed to materialize. He ended up in the German second tier with Vfl Bochum. A moderately successful first season with the Bundesliga 2 outfit saw a double-figures goal return, but a subsequent move to Cologne in the Bundesliga was a virtual failure, yielding little game time and zero goals and he watched as the team was relegated. Not only has his club career been patchy, but he has failed to find the target for the North Korean national team since before the World Cup.
Now he finds himself with a fresh challenge. In a move that has been rumoured for several months, the 29-year-old has just clinched a £250,000 move to South Korean giants Suwon Bluewings. He becomes only the fourth North Korean to play across the forbidden frontier in South Korea’s domestic game.
It marks a fairly dramatic fall in expectations for Jong. Much of the talk surrounding his name was, hindsight suggests, hype perhaps fuelled by his eccentricity and the charm of his emotional outburst at the World Cup when he cried during the North Korean national anthem.
There are renewed expectations now – if at a lower level than the prestige of Europe – in a country with little tolerance for North Korean machinations, so Jong may need to mute his previous displays of patriotism, and quickly return to goal-scoring form.
He arrived in the South on January 10 to a media frenzy. He represents a kind of novelty, as much for his personality as for the fact he represents North Korea, the South’s sworn enemy. And the press has already piled on the pressure. “In the past, North Korea players have not been very successful in the South, and most have struggled to get used to the style of play here,” the Seoul-based Chosun Ilbo daily newspaper reported. “Ryang Kyu-sa, who played for Ulsan Hyundai in 2001, and Kim Yong-hui, who played for Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma in 2002, both left the clubs after a year or so. Another North Korean midfielder, Ahn Young-hak, who played for Busan I’Park and Suwon from 2006 to 2009, did not perform as well in Korea as in Japan, his country of birth. It remains to be seen how Jong will fare with his new club.”
Though nominally North Korean, the question of his real nationality has often been questioned. He holds a South Korean passport, but he is an ethnic Korean born and educated in Japan at a North Korean-backed school. He has always denied having South Korean lineage, saying that his mother is from the North and his father considers himself North Korean. Regardless, the world was introduced in earnest to Jong when he cried those patriotic tears for North Korea in South Africa, cementing the country as the homeland of his heart.
It would be asinine, of course, to entertain the notion Jong was among the party on the plane back to the reclusive northeast Asian state two-and-a-half years ago. This is a man who drives expensive cars that have reportedly included a Hummer. At the time of the World Cup, as a striker with Japanese club Kawasaki Frontale just before his German move, he was earning, one report suggested, in the region of £4,000 pounds per week – beyond the average North Korean squad member’s wildest dreams. And just to be clear, he has never lived in North Korea, nor is he ever likely to.
Jong’s time as a western media darling, then, may be over, but it seems likely his popularity in North Korean capital Pyongyang has taken an even bigger nosedive – one to match his recent strike rate at both club and domestic level.
He has been awarded three years in the South's K-League to reassert himself. Ever the optimist, he has expressed hopes his presence in the South could provide a bridge between the warring regimes of Seoul and Pyongyang. In the parlance of the South Korean press "it remains to be seen" whether he is a better diplomat than he has been a goalscorer of late.