By design or accident, North Korea found a soccer training site so remote that it has easily maintained its distinction as the mystery team of the third Women's World Cup.
The North Korean women will begin play Sunday -- the day after the World Cup opens with doubleheaders at Giants Stadium and in San Jose -- against Nigeria at the Rose Bowl and will play the United States June 27 at Foxboro Stadium. They used their first few days in the United States to settle in at a leisurely pace amid the lakes and hills of northwestern New Jersey, the location ensuring minimum disturbance from reporters.
Those who reached the North Korean complex found an enthusiastic group of players in white shirts and red shorts working out easily on a lush field next to a golf course. But captain and midfielder Kim Kum Sil said that after six days, she and her teammates still were trying to get acclimated. "We are still not yet accustomed to the change of time," said Kim, 28, who played on a world all-star team that beat the United States, 2-1, Feb. 22 in San Jose.
"This is the first time for us to play in the FIFA World Cup and while we play teams that are stronger than us, we will take part in the sense of a learning people," Kim said, adding that North Korea's "prime task is to get qualified for the Sydney Olympics." At least seven quarterfinalists in the Women's World Cup plus Australia, the host country for the Olympics, will qualify for next year's Games.
Team officials from the communist country gave little information about their soccer team or anything else during a half-hour session with American reporters. The North Korean team did not look particularly imposing during a workout that followed. At one point they simply had a good time laughing and jumping about under a water sprinkler. Their superiors looked on rather sternly.
Still, the team reportedly played hard and managed to keep the scores close in losing, 3-1 and 2-0, to talented China in the December 1997 Asian Cup. North Korea finished second to China in that competition to qualify for the World Cup, and again finished second to China in the 1998 Asian Games.
"Our style is to adapt to the strategies of the opponent," said Kim Hak Yong, a team official. "Our style is not permanent."
While that could mean anything, it was clear that Kim Kum Sil is the most experienced player -- and the only one team officials made available to the media, and only for a few minutes at that. Kim said she became interested in soccer when her father told her stories about Pak Doo Ik, whose goal in the 1966 men's World Cup produced one of the great upsets in soccer history, North Korea's 1-0 victory over Italy.
Kim's goal beat Japan, 1-0, in the Asian Cup to put North Korea into the Women's World Cup. She also scored six goals in another qualifying match, a 14-1 victory over the Philippines.
"We haven't concentrated on a lot of things, only the upcoming matches and getting accustomed to all the changes, including the time and the climate," Kim said in answer to a question about the players' hopes to see anything in America other than soccer stadiums.
Ryu Song Il, secretary general of the North Korean Olympic Committee, already had been explicit about the purpose of their trip -- they were not here to exchange information with Americans about their different cultures. "Sports people haven't thought about that," he said. "We have to concentrate mostly on the FIFA World Cup. As sportsmen we haven't thought deeply on anything else."
Women have been playing organized soccer in North Korea since 1979. The country's World Cup players apparently have not been affected by the famine that has plagued the country the last four years.
North Korean officials available to answer questions steered away from any inquiry that didn't relate to soccer. Even answers to soccer questions were vague. Kim Hak Yong said the officials "would like to avoid any activities that would distract the team. We do not want to divert their attention."
But he suggested that the North Koreans would not be embarrassed during the World Cup.
"Women's soccer started not so long ago and I think my team will play against very strong teams this time," he said. "How we play against the strong teams will clearly demonstrate how we have prepared for the Women's World Cup. Even though we play for the first time, we expect to live up to all the expectations."
Kim Kum Sil sounded less certain when asked how she expected the North Koreans to fare against the Mia Hamm-led Americans. "We face a challenge with Hamm but we will try our best to cope," Kim said. But when she was asked to describe the progress of women's soccer in North Korea, Ryu stepped forward and declared: "She must be involved with the training." With that, Ryu ushered Kim back among her teammates and the interview was terminated.
As mystery guests, the North Korean women are not apt to be taken lightly, as the North Korean men were in the 1966 World Cup. After their stunning upset of Italy to advance to the quarterfinals with a 1-1-1 record, the North Koreans of 1966 took a 3-0 lead over Portugal before losing, 5-3. Not until now has North Korea again played in a World Cup.
CAPTION: North Korean Coach Myong Tong Chan, left, watches Pak Jong Ae practice at the team's remote camp in New Jersey.