The World Cup, in South Korea, is usually a huge deal—but not this year. The South Korean media has barely covered it, and conversations rarely turn to it. Part of the reason is that the 2018 Korean squad is pretty bad. A dedicated Korea fan could find some solace in the fact that the Taegeuk Warriors—so named after the Korean word for the red and blue yin-yang symbol in the middle of the South Korean flag—have qualified for ten World Cups in all and the past nine in a row, a record for an Asian country. Our ebullient striker Son Heung-min can be a joy to watch—if only there were a few more world-class talents around him. But since South Korea drew the same group as defending champions Germany and the strong Mexican squad that just defeated Die Mannschaft, the national team is unlikely to advance out of the group stage. The Korean squad could not even eke out a draw against its fellow underdog Sweden, losing 0-1 in a listless and ugly game.
Yet the weakness of the side alone does not fully explain the country’s current level of apathy about the tournament. South Korea’s World Cup history features several soul-crushing drubbings: 9-0 vs. Hungary in 1954, 7-0 vs. Turkey in the same year, 5-0 vs. the Netherlands in 1998, and 4-1 vs. Argentina in 2010. In that 1954 loss to Hungary, the Magyars had over a hundred shots on goal, including one that broke a rib of the goalie, Hong Deok-young. Despite such humiliations, we Koreans always dutifully tuned in, usually deep into the night because the games were rarely played in a friendly time zone. Munching on home-delivery fried chicken and chugging beer, we would watch our boys lose, and lose again, every four years. Because the World Cup deserved attention. Because these were the biggest games.
Except this time, there have been bigger games in play. Two days before the World Cup began, Donald Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, met in Singapore in what was billed as a historic summit. The following day, South Korea held local elections in which voters awarded a landslide victory to the liberal Democratic Party of President Moon Jae-in. The news coverage showing Trump and Kim shaking hands, together with the map of South Korea covered in the Democrats’ blue, crowded out talk of soccer.
Yet, in a way, these political blockbuster moments have their roots in soccer. The story goes back to 2002, our own version of the 2004 Red Sox and 2016 Cubs wins—the victory that redeemed decades of suffering. In the 2002 World Cup, Team Korea, led by Park Ji-sung, defeated Portugal, Italy, and Spain en route to a top-four finish. That year’s tournament, which South Korea co-hosted with Japan, did not just change Korea’s football; it changed Korea’s public life.
Under the military dictatorship that lasted until 1987, a public gathering in South Korea was a grim, joyless affair: either a phony mass convocation drummed up by the government, or a pro-democracy protest featuring Molotov cocktails and tear gas. A law prohibiting Koreans from gathering after sundown stayed on the books until 2009. But in 2002, millions of Team Korea supporters—calling themselves the Red Devils—gathered at Seoul’s City Hall Plaza on game nights. The chanting and singing supporters became a spectacle of their own. As the Taegeuk Warriors took down one powerhouse after another, the mood of the crowd, made up mostly of Koreans in their twenties and thirties, shifted. They tuned out the grousing of Italy and Spain fans who pointed to South Korea’s home-field advantage and some dodgy refereeing. Instead, the young Koreans fed off the new-found confidence of their team: we are no longer underdogs; we can win on our own merits.
This spirit of optimism seeped out beyond football and permeated Korea’s youth. Korea was just then turning into the world’s first wired society, having adopted widespread broadband Internet earlier than any other country. With an unprecedented level of connectivity, young Koreans engaged in the world’s first online activism—an energetic flash mob that could organize around a cause quickly and in huge numbers. The political dividend was immediate: later that same year, an upstart liberal named Roh Moo-hyun defeated the machine politicians to win the presidency. At a time when the word “viral” in English only referred to a disease, online videos of Roh’s electrifying speeches spread over the Korean Internet, fomenting a potent new, youth-led, liberal groundswell in South Korean politics.
Roh’s time in power, unfortunately, did not end well. His administration fulfilled the stereotypes of youthful enthusiasm: rash, naive, and inexperienced. His term ended in a whimper, and the backlash from the older generation was something fierce. First, they elected the former Hyundai chief Lee Myung-bak, backing his dubious arguments that a wealthy man who could not be bought was just the person to clean up Korean politics. Lee did not make Korea great again, finishing his term in 2012 with a series of corruption scandals and miserably low ratings. In the presidential election that followed, the older generation doubled down on turning back history: they elected Park Geun-hye, the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the dictator who oversaw South Korea’s economic rise in the 1960s and 1970s.
These consecutive right-wing administrations’ nine years in power eroded nearly every aspect of Korea’s democracy. Park’s narrow victory derived in part from the help by the National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s spy agency, which interfered in the election by running a “psy-ops” campaign that posted millions of fake tweets and posts on Internet message boards. The NIS also bankrolled right-wing groups and media outlets that harassed and smeared liberal politicians. The government blacklisted liberal-leaning celebrities and effectively banned them from television and radio. The chief justice of Korea’s Supreme Court maintained a dossier of politically sensitive cases and steered their outcomes. Journalists who were critical of the government lost their jobs.
But this story has a happy ending. By 2016, the young people of the 2002 World Cup generation had reached early middle-age, forming the electoral core of Korean society. When President Park was exposed as a feeble-minded puppet manipulated by the daughter of a shaman who claimed to speak with Park’s dead mother, Korean civil society staged one of the greatest protests in the modern democratic history: the Candlelight Protests, which lasted from November 2016 to March 2017. For seventeen weeks in a row, more than a million people filled Seoul’s City Hall Plaza each week, holding candles to drive out the night’s darkness. In the cold of winter, they chanted and sang to demand a restoration of democracy. Like the Taegeuk Warriors in 2002, against the odds they won. Park Geun-hye was impeached, and Moon Jae-in—Roh Moo-hyun’s former chief of staff—won the ensuing snap election.
Moon, as the world now knows, has spent his first year in office calmly defusing the escalating North Korean nuclear crisis by holding two inter-Korean summits, and brokering the first-ever summit between a North Korean leader and a president of the United States. After the first inter-Korean summit, Moon’s approval rating at one point climbed to over 85 percent, making him the most popular leader in the free world. Leveraging this stratospheric popularity, Moon’s Democratic Party last week achieved a commanding victory in the local elections, inflicting a rout of the conservative parties that will take years to recover from.
All this political drama drew Koreans’ attention away from the World Cup, at least in the early part. But even when Koreans are not focusing on soccer, they still participate in soccer culture—because it has become Korea’s political culture. With last week’s elections and summit behind them, Koreans are ready to turn their attention once again to the beautiful game. Because the World Cup deserves attention. Mexico will probably beat us 5-0, but we’ve been through worse. When our boys take to the pitch, we will gather again at the City Hall Plaza, chanting and singing. Just as we did in 2002.
S. Nathan Park is an attorney in Washington, D.C., whose commentary on Korean affairs has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and the Financial Times, among other publications. (June 2018)