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More than language separates US, North Korea women's Olympic soccer teams

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July 28, 2012: The North Korean women's soccer team line up before their group G match against France at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, at Hampden Park Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland.AP

The coach of the North Korean women's football team sat in his chair and placed on the table a black half-inch thick notebook with the word "COACH" -- in English in huge, gray letters -- printed on the front. 

Beside him sat a man who identified himself as a team manager and also serves as translator, his small tan notebook and pen at the ready.

Time for questions.

"Do your players have any special motivation when playing against the United States, whether because they're ranked as the best team in the world, or because of the adversarial relationship between the two countries?"

The team manager leaned toward the coach. Mumbles were exchanged. Back came the answer.

"We believe in our players' mental power," said the team manager, Choe Nam Hyok.

"That's all?"

"That's all," Choe said.

"That doesn't answer my question," said the reporter.

Choe stared sternly at the reporter and didn't respond.

In an ever-connected sports world in which players, coaches and reporters from all nations mix freely, North Korea remains a mystery, erecting a proverbial wall that leaves others curious, fascinated and sometimes frustrated. Nowhere is it more obvious than at the Olympics.

"From, like, a humane level, I want to know what their lives are like," U.S. soccer forward Abby Wambach said. "And what they do for fun."

The U.S. and North Korean women's teams are in the same group at the London Games and have shared the same hotels in Glasgow and Manchester for more than a week ahead of their match at Old Trafford on Tuesday. The Korean players would often avoid eye contact when there was a similar arrangement at last year's World Cup in Germany, but this time they are somewhat more engaging when there are encounters in the hallways.

"Compared with last year, they seem a lot happier," U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "It seems like they're actually enjoying themselves this time, so it's nice to see. They are smiling more. If you lock onto their stare long enough, they'll give you one back."

"You've got to be really getting into it, though," Rapinoe added, laughing. "You've got to be asking for it."

The Korean players and staff liked to hang out in the common room in Glasgow, where there were table tennis and pool tables. U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath and reserve player Meghan Klingenberg stumbled upon a game of table tennis with Korean and French players and were invited to join in -- although neither side understood what the other was saying.

"Everyone just seemed to be laughing a lot," Heath said, "and just seemed to be enjoying the time together. It was a special moment."

But, otherwise, the teams' off-the-field routines have little in common. The Americans spend their free time shopping, sightseeing and eating out. The Koreans stay cloistered in their hotel. Asked why his players don't get out and about, coach Sin Ui Gun -- through the interpreter -- gave three reasons: The training schedule is too busy, it rained too much in Glasgow, and the players like staying in the hotel.

The Americans couldn't help but think about the disparity as they traveled from Glasgow to Manchester on Sunday.

"A few of us were talking about the bus ride here -- what are the North Koreans doing on their bus?" Wambach said. "Honestly, do they have computers? Are they watching television shows like we are? What are they doing to be, like, normal? Sure, those questions cross our minds."

And it's nearly impossible to get answers. At the coach's first news conference in Glasgow, a FIFA spokesman said North Korean players would be made available for interviews. Afterward, the team manager said the players would be off-limits.

"Our players are not accustomed to interviews," Choe said.

"Don't you trust your players?" he was asked.

"It's not a matter of trust or mistrust," he answered.

The players are required to walk past reporters after games, but they don't stop to talk. They were still in uniform when they left the stadium after their opening game against Colombia. That was the game that started an hour late because organizers mistakenly displayed a South Korean flag on the video screen, getting the North Koreans so upset that they refused to take the field until they received an apology.

A reporter tried to ask the players about the flag flap, but the interpreter wasn't present. Even so, the players didn't appear willing to talk. They smiled and kept walking. Two of them waved North Korean flags -- the correct version.

The scenes are similar at other venues. On Saturday, the North Korean who won the weightlifting bronze in the women's 48-kilogram class didn't appear at the medalists' news conference. Officials said Ryang Chun Hwa was doing a standard doping test and might show up later. She never did.

The world did get to hear from another North Korean weightlifter, Om Yun Chol, after he won gold on Sunday, but all he wanted to talk about was the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

"How can any man possibly lift 168kg?" Om was quoted as saying by the Olympic News Service. "I believe the great Kim Jong Il looked over me. ... I am very happy and give thanks to our Great Leader for giving me the strength to lift this weight. I believe Kim Jong Il gave me the record and all my achievements. It is all because of him."

At the football venues, Choe sometimes struggles to understand the questions. He frequently asks for even simple queries to be repeated. One football-related question -- about the team's inability to defend set pieces against France -- slowed the proceedings to a crawl. Choe asked for the question to be repeated, conferred with the coach at length, then asked to hear the question a third time.

There are other lost-in-translation moments. The coach mumbled a one-second answer to Choe on Saturday when asked a question about the loss to France, yet Choe managed to translate the coach's words into a response that ran 17 seconds. And when the team took a tour of Old Trafford on Monday to familiarize themselves with the stadium ahead of Tuesday's game, four of the players mistakenly ended up in the men's bathroom.

The head coach didn't make it to Monday's news conference. The team announced he was sick and remained at the hotel, so assistant coach Ri Song Ho filled in. Ri was asked if the players had seen any of Manchester.

"It's not very important," Ri said. "They are now thinking about the match itself. If we have some time after a successful match tomorrow, then we will think about it."

At least Monday's news conference yielded a rare smile or two from the Koreans, particularly when Choe translated Ri's answer about playing at Old Trafford.

"He's pleased to have a match in such a good stadium," Choe said. "And maybe we can play better."

There's been a debate as to whether the women's soccer team should have been allowed to compete at these Olympics after a major doping scandal at last year's World Cup, when five players tested positive for steroids and the nation was banned from the 2015 World Cup. Team officials offered a bizarre explanation, saying the players' positive tests resulted from receiving musk deer gland therapy after getting struck by lightning during a training camp. Asked if the team deserves to be at the London Games, Choe declined comment.

Of course, one thing that did get North Koreans officials talking was the South Korea flag gaffe, when the anger was flowing freely.

"Winning the game can't compensate for the mistake," coach Sin said after the victory over Colombia. "I just want to stress once again that our players' images and names can't be shown alongside the South Korea flag."

One person who has been inside the wall, so to speak, is U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, who watched a practice in Pyongyang in 2007 as an FIFA ambassador for women's soccer. She was impressed by the practice, but there's so much more she'd like to know.

"I would love to speak the language," Sundhage said, "and ask a couple of questions."