Han Kwang-song is the brightest prospect to have emerged from North Korea in a generation. The 19-year-old forward left his native country at the age of 13 and spent some time learning his trade in Barcelona, at the Fundación Marcet football academy.
From there, Han made the switch to Italy where he has consolidated in Serie B as one of the most exciting attacking players in the league, where he has scored seven times in 17 games on loan at Perugia from Cagliari, in the course of doing so becoming the first North Korean player in history to find the net in the Italian league.
Han bagged a hat-trick against Virtus Entella on his debut in Serie B and followed that up with a another against Pescara the following week, scoring five in his first seven games to attract the interest of the Italian media.
North Korea bans Han from interviews
However, Han has also been the subject of scrutiny by the powers that be in North Korea. The striker was invited to appear on Italian state television (RAI) in an interview to discuss his impressions on life in Italy and his career to date. Shortly before it was due to air live, he received a call from a member of Kim Jong-un’s inner circle prohibiting him from appearing. The interview went ahead without Han and Perugia president Massimiliano Santopadre was obliged to explain his absence.
“I received a call from a person close to a North Korean minister and they blocked the interview. It was impossible to talk to them because they insisted on speaking only with the player. The situation with his government is very strict and they have prohibited him from appearing on television. If he does not comply he faces repatriation, which Han is scared about,” Santopadre told La Stampa.
North Korea banks part of Han's Cagliari wages
North Korea operates a rigid control over its citizens whether they are in the country or abroad and the hold on Han is not limited to broadcast issues. A portion of the salaries earned by expatriates is collected by the North Korean authorities to obtain foreign currency in order to side-step UN sanctions. According to the latest estimates, some 150,000 North Korean nationals work overseas.
That has left Cagliari in a quandary as the club is obliged to send money to a state with which Italy has no diplomatic relations. North Korea has no ambassador to Italy after the minister for foreign affairs, Angelino Alfano, expelled the incumbent last October in protest against the regime’s nuclear missile programme.
Nevertheless, last Saturday Italian sports daily Tuttosport rana headline stating: “Juventus look to invest in Han.” The Serie A champions are hopeful of signing the striker in January and loaning him back to Perugia until the end of the season but within the club there is a level of uncertainty as Han could expect a huge pay rise to join the club, a significant amount of which will end up in North Korea’s state coffers.