ANSEONG, South Korea (Reuters) - Despite living on porridge made from grass during the worst years of a North Korean famine, Kim Il-cheol harboured dreams of playing for the national soccer team.
In 2004, the stocky midfielder set up three goals in a single game to help his team take second in a youth tournament in the coastal province of Kangwon.
Three years later, he had to leave his soccer dreams behind when he slipped into China to defect to South Korea with his mother and sister.
However, his feelings for the national soccer team came with him.
And so on Monday, despite having fled poverty and repression in the North and taking South Korean citizenship, Kim cringed as he watched his side being hammered 7-0 by Portugal at North Korea’s first World Cup finals in 44 years.
“I‘m disappointed,” said Kim, 20, after Portugal scored their fourth goal. “But I‘m just happy to see the players from home doing their best.”
Other defectors share his feelings for the North Korean team.
On Monday, Kim watched the game projected onto a huge white sheet in a gymnasium with around 100 other young defectors, his schoolmates at the Hangyeore Junior and Senior High School.
South Korea set up the school four years ago to help young defectors adjust to life in their new country.
Besides academic courses, the students learn how to surf the Internet as well as how to use basic tools of the modern world such as credit cards and mobile phones.
The crowd of students in the gym cheered and clapped whenever North Korea took the ball forward, screeching with each missed shot.
Jang Nam-yong watched the game intently and called himself a fan of the North Korea team. Jang never had a chance to watch them in his hometown of Chongjin in the North because his family could not afford a television.
Jang, 21, spent a year in prison after Chinese police handed him over to North Korean soldiers the first time he sneaked out of the country to flee poverty.
He was more careful the second time and eventually made it to South Korea via Myanmar and Thailand.
“I left North Korea because I didn’t like the government, not because I didn’t like the people,” he said.
His father and one of his sisters are still in North Korea.
Life in South Korea can be rough for defectors from the Stalinist North, whose accents give them away and who are often discriminated against or treated as an underclass in the wealthier South.
“In many ways, the North Korean defectors do feel very much like outsiders here in South Korea,” said Tim Peters, founder and director of Helping Hands Korea.
“Sometimes they secretly do kind of yearn for the simplicity of their home town where they grew up, where they were accepted, where they were on par with folks in their own social situation.”
Sports, while used by the North Korean regime for propaganda purposes, is far enough removed from politics that even many South Koreans will root for North Korean athletes out of a sense of ethnic pride.
As the game against Portugal turned into a rout, some of the students began to shuffle back to their dorms. Only a few were left by the final whistle.
Han Jin-yong, 20, who plays midfield for the Hangyeore school soccer team, was among them.
“They did well in the first half, but not so well in the second,” he said.
(Editing by Ron Popeski and Peter Rutherford)