Han Kwang Song: North Korean striker scores in World Cup qualifier after vanishing from world soccer for over three years

After more than three years of going missing from world soccer, North Korean striker Han Kwang Song has reappeared, playing for his country in two recent World Cup qualifiers and scoring in the 6-1 win over Myanmar on Tuesday.

Han first featured for the Chollima against Syria on November 16 – a match played in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah – wearing a white away uniform with the North Korean flag on his chest and the number 10 on his back.

Attempting to qualify for the World Cup for a third time, North Korea lost 1-0. Han then started and scored a powerful header in the 38th minute for the nation in its dominating win against Myanmar in the Thuwunna Stadium in Yangon.

After playing for Qatar club Al-Duhail on August 21, 2020, the young striker – who came to world prominence after playing for a number of Italian soccer teams – had gone missing, nowhere to be seen or heard of.

A CNN investigation found that he had returned to Rome when he was deported from Qatar in early 2021 and had stayed at an unspecified North Korean embassy until flights back to Pyongyang resumed just this August. It is unclear when and how he returned home.

The North Korea football federation, the Asian Football Confederation and world soccer governing body FIFA didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment on Han’s return to international football.

The return of the North Korean wunderkind has surprised soccer pundits and fans, who worried about his safety and promising career being cut short.

Max Canzi, who coached Han at Serie A club Cagliari’s Under-19 team, said he is “very happy” for the striker to return.

“Very curious about the level of his performance after being out for so much time,” Canzi told CNN Sport, after learning that Han had reappeared in the loss against Syria.

Han’s former teammate Nicholas Pennington at Cagliari told CNN Sport: “Hopefully, Han stays in the spotlight and the fact that there is concern helps him get back to where he should be.”

Listed in the roster for North Korea’s World Cup qualifiers against Syria and Myanmar were not just Han, but also Pak Kwang Ryong and Choe Song Hyok – who played for Austria’s SKN St. Pölten and Italy’s SS Arezzo, respectively, until they were forced to stop due to the UN sanctions that ordered the repatriation of all overseas North Korean workers by the end of 2019.

Han played for North Korea against Syria and Myanmar in November. - Alberto Mier/CNN
Han played for North Korea against Syria and Myanmar in November. - Alberto Mier/CNN

Where in the world was Han?

In 2017, Han became the first North Korean to score a goal in one of Europe’s five major soccer leagues and even made a shock transfer to Italian giant Juventus in 2019, then later to Qatar’s Al-Duhail.

The young striker from Pyongyang quickly drew attention from soccer pundits and fans – not just for his unique background, but for his technical prowess as well.

But his promising career was cut short when he disappeared from the world soccer stage in 2020, leaving fans with a question: “Where in the world was Han?”

Han’s career was affected by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposing sanctions against North Korea for conducting its sixth nuclear test in 2017.

The sanctions ordered member states to repatriate all North Korean nationals working in their respective jurisdictions amid concerns that foreign money was being transferred to support Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and weapons programs. The UNSC resolution set the end of 2019 as the deadline for repatriation.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to North Korea fully sealing its borders, making it impossible for Han and fellow repatriated North Korean nationals to return home.

He had been due to fly out of Qatar in 2021 in accordance with the UN sanctions – but then vanished. A CNN investigation into his story shed new light on his disappearance.

After joining Al-Duhail in January 2020, in the middle of the Qatar Stars League 2019/20 season, Han went on to play in 10 league games, scoring three goals and playing a significant role in the club’s league title win.

Qatar had signed the North Korean on a five-year, $4.6 million (€4,310,000) contract until the 2023/24 season; as such, Han was remunerated around $296,200 (€270,000) between February and April 2020, according to the UNSC report of the Panel of Experts from mid-2020.

Though Han was performing admirably on the pitch, questions remained over whether he was sending money back to his homeland, as the UNSC said of other North Koreans working abroad.

The UN document shows Han had signed a pledge to a Qatari bank to not transfer “any money cost or amount to North Korea in any cases.”

Although it is unclear in Han’s case whether he had been sending money back to the Kim regime, it is widely reported that North Korea often forces its workers abroad to send money to the government back home.

Han won the Qatar Stars League title in the 2019/20 season before vanishing from the soccer pitch. - Alberto Mier/CNN
Han won the Qatar Stars League title in the 2019/20 season before vanishing from the soccer pitch. - Alberto Mier/CNN

The UNSC Panel of Experts in another report released in March 2020 said it was investigating North Korean nationals suspected of earning income overseas, which also include “specialists, such as sports players.”

Han’s last game for Al-Duhail was on August 21, 2020, when he came off the bench against Al-Ahli in the season finale.

It would be the last time soccer fans would see Han play on the professional level until now. By the time the new season kicked off the following month, Han was gone – no longer in the starting line-up nor on the bench, with no news emerging of any transfer.

Months passed without any update regarding Han’s whereabouts until a UNSC final report of the Panel of Experts released in March 2021 confirmed that the player’s contract had been terminated with Al-Duhail earlier that year and he was deported from Qatar.

Han boarded a Qatar Airways flight from Doha on January 26, 2021, when he was deported, according to a letter attached in the UNSC’s final report of the Panel of Experts.

However, as Han could not return home due to North Korea closing its borders because of the pandemic, the flight took him back to Rome.

Before playing for North Korea against Syria in last week’s World Cup qualifier, Han was last reported to be living in an unspecified North Korean embassy in 2021, awaiting the resumption of flights back to Pyongyang, according to another official close to the issue.

Han had spells at three Italian clubs: Perugia, Cagliari and Juventus. - Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images
Han had spells at three Italian clubs: Perugia, Cagliari and Juventus. - Tullio M. Puglia/Getty Images

Sporting isolation

In May 2021, North Korea pulled out of qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and didn’t take part in the Tokyo Summer Olympics or the Beijing Winter Games, officially citing the coronavirus pandemic.

“North Korea has been barred from competing at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing as part of its punishment for its ‘unilateral decision’ to drop out of the Tokyo Games this summer,” the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said in 2021. 

The already-isolated country had fully shut its borders when the pandemic began in 2020 and has only recently lifted the restrictions to bring back its nationals living abroad like Han, who was stranded with no way to return home all this time.

Then this past September, Pyongyang sent a large number of athletes to Hangzhou, China, for the 2022 Asian Games, which was postponed a year due to the pandemic.

Unlike the women’s team, which reached the soccer final of the Asian Games before losing to Japan, North Korea’s men’s national team has had relatively poor results in international competitions.

While the women’s team will be remembered for its impressive campaign – notably beating South Korea 4-1 – the men’s team made an embarrassing exit after receiving six yellow cards and fiercely confronting the referees after falling to Japan 2-1 in quarterfinal.

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