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What do athletes do after a humiliating defeat? Say, a 7-0 loss in a football match broadcast on national television?

It's not hard to imagine the locker room scene, as some players shuffle off to the showers with their heads hung low while others stare at the floor. Some probably vent their anger by throwing things, or perhaps pounding their lockers or kicking a nearby garbage can. The coach would have to say something, perhaps give a little pep talk about how to learn from the defeat and move on. The players would want to avoid the media horde outside the locker room, but the coach would have to explain what went wrong.

But for a national athlete from North Korea, it's a completely different story. When North Korea observers recently read a Radio Free Asia report on what happened to North Korean football players whose team failed to advance to the elimination round of the World Cup in South Africa in June, there was a sense of deja vu.

North Korea played in the World Cup this year for the first time since 1966, and the country had high hopes. But the national team did not fare well, crashing out of the tournament after three straight losses. The nadir was the crushing 7-0 defeat to Portugal that in a highly unusual move by North Korea's totalitarian government was broadcast live on TV.

Radio Free Asia quoted three independent sources saying that the football team had gone through a humiliating six-hour session of public criticism on July 2 at the Pyongyang People's Cultural Palace. Sports Minister Pak Myong-chol, and a TV commentator, Ri Dong-kyu, who is also a professor with the Sports Science Institute, led the session, the report said, and 400 other athletes affiliated with other sports associations and government agencies took part.

While the players and coach reportedly stood in front of the audience, Ri was joined by Sports Ministry representatives in criticizing the weaknesses of each player. Next, some other participants followed suit. Toward the end of the meeting, it was the turn of the coach, Kim Jong-hun, and then each of his players was compelled to criticize him.

There have been no reports of further harsh or sustained punishments. But there are reasons to be concerned given how the national team fared after the 1966 World Cup.

That team advanced to the quarterfinals by defeating Italy, then the strongest contender, but lost to Portugal 5-3. The players were greeted initially as national heroes, but their stardom was short-lived. North Korean refugees have described how the team and its coach were subjected to an ideological criticism session similar to the 2010 session. But escapees also said members of the 1966 team were relocated to remote locations in the countryside and forced to live and toil under harsh conditions.

The North Korean government has never acknowledged, much less explained, why the 1966 team was punished. Based on testimony from North Koreans and The Game of Their Lives, a 2002 BBC documentary film shot with North Korean government permission, some of the players were reinstated and permitted to work as players and coaches. The documentary says all the players interviewed denied that any of their team members were punished. But the fate of some of them is unknown because they simply dropped from the public eye and have not been seen again.

The humiliating and bizarre criticism sessions, and the rumors of imprisonment for the 1966 team, are a reflection of the public fear generated by North Korea's abusive system. In fact, North Korean officials are often severely punished for mistakes. South Korean media reported earlier this year that North Korea executed Pak Nam-ki, a former finance minister, after blaming him for a monetary revaluation scheme last November that led to food shortages and runaway inflation.

North Korean authorities periodically execute people in public - in markets and stadiums, and even riverbanks - for non-violent offenses such as ''illegal'' border crossing. Local authorities require the family of the condemned, including young children, to stand in the front row of spectators. The government runs massive forced labor camps not only for persons accused of "political crimes" but also for their parents, spouses and children. Children born inside these camps live as prisoners and can spend their childhood in forced labor.

Separation of sports and politics has a nice ring to it, but it's not the reality in North Korea. Defeated athletes in other countries may suffer criticism and career consequences, but that is quite different from government-orchestrated condemnation in a system with an unparalleled record of abuse.

Poor performance by public servants in North Korea can mean not just being sacked but being executed.

Kay Seok is the North Korea researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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