When the North Korean men’s soccer team took the field for two 2026 World Cup qualifying matches this month, close observers noticed an important roster change.
Han Kwang-song, a high-profile striker, was back, more than three years after vanishing from public view for reasons beyond his control: United Nations-imposed sanctions on North Korean nationals over Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Mr. Han’s story is a rare case of North Korea sanctions reverberating through professional soccer. It also shows how enforcement of U.N. sanctions against individuals varies by country.
The government in Italy did not deport Mr. Han, now 25, while he was playing professional soccer there. But once he moved to Qatar, the Qatari government did.
“The basic story makes sense; the surprising part is that Qatar complied with the U.N. resolutions,” said Marcus Noland, an expert on North Korean sanctions and executive vice president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
A prodigy with ‘superhero’ status
Mr. Han’s early success was partly a product of North Korea’s push to cultivate soccer talent. After attending a prestigious soccer school founded by the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un, Mr. Han trained in Spain before turning pro in Italy.
He quickly made an impression in Europe as a speedy forward with an eye for goal. Back home, North Korea’s official news agency praised him after a 2019 Asian Cup qualifier as “the player that experts and enthusiasts paid the most attention to.”
“In North Korea, he’s a superhero,” said Kim Heung-Tae, a professor of sports science at Daejin University in South Korea who follows the North’s soccer program.
But in 2017, as punishment for the North’s sixth nuclear weapons test, the United Nations Security Council ordered all North Korean nationals working abroad to be repatriated by December 2019 — a strategy for preventing financing of the North’s military.
Mr. Han, one of several North Koreans playing overseas in professional soccer leagues at the time, was among the targets.
Sanctions meet reality
But the Italian authorities did not repatriate Mr. Han by the 2019 deadline, United Nations Security Council reports show. Instead, Juventus, the Italian club where he had been earning more than half a million euros a year, struck a deal in early 2020 to send him to Al-Duhail, a soccer team in Qatar, on a five-year contract worth about 4.3 million euros, about $4.7 million.
Though a Security Council panel of experts on North Korea contacted Italy and Qatar immediately after that transfer, it was not canceled, and Juventus accepted a transfer fee from the Qatari club, according to the U.N. The panel said in a report that it later “reiterated to Qatar the relevant resolutions concerning the case.”
That summer, Mr. Han stopped appearing for Al-Duhail. In January 2021, Qatar’s mission to the United Nations said in a letter to the U.N. panel that Mr. Han had left Qatar after having his contract “terminated” by the club — and that Qatar’s actions reflected its commitments to Security Council resolutions about North Korean nationals who earn income abroad.
At the time, the coronavirus pandemic was raging, and North Korea’s borders were sealed. Qatar said in its letter, a copy of which was included in a U.N. report, that Mr. Han had left the country on Qatar Airways Flight 131 — a nonstop flight to Rome.
‘He’s probably been training all along’
Details of Mr. Han’s movements since leaving Qatar, including the timing and circumstances of his return to North Korea, remain scarce. According to Transfermarkt, a website that tracks soccer players and their contracts, he has not played for a professional club since July 2021.
Also unclear is whether any of Mr. Han’s earnings ever made it back to the North Korean government.
Mr. Han signed an agreement in 2020 with a Qatari bank, where he had an account at the time, pledging not to transfer any money to his home country, according to a U.N. report. Still, Professor Kim said, North Korean agents had most likely accompanied him everywhere he went overseas and restricted how he spent his earnings.
Neither FIFA, the governing body of soccer; nor the Italian or Qatari Foreign Ministries; nor North Korea’s soccer association or the Asian Football Confederation immediately responded to requests for comment. Nor did Al-Duhail, Juventus or Cagliari, another team that Mr. Han played for in Italy.
Mr. Han’s return to competition this month was reported earlier by CNN and the website NK News, among other outlets.
Professor Kim said that the pandemic had probably curtailed many athletic events in North Korea, where the long-lasting border closing crippled the nation’s economy. But soccer is the country’s most popular sport, and Professor Kim said that domestic competitions had probably been held regularly in recent months.
As for Mr. Han, Professor Kim said, “he’s probably been training all along.”
Rather than joining another professional league abroad, Mr. Han is likely to focus on preparing for the 2026 World Cup, Professor Kim said. He added that North Korea was competitive in its region and had a good chance of qualifying, in part because FIFA has nearly doubled the number of slots for Asian countries at that tournament, which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Max Canzi, who coached Mr. Han in Italy for Cagliari’s under-19 team, told CNN that he was “very happy” that the striker had returned to international competition for the World Cup qualifying match against Syria in Saudi Arabia on Nov. 16.
As Mr. Han resumes his career, Mr. Canzi added that he was “very curious about the level of his performance after being out for so much time.”
Mr. Han was substituted at halftime in the Saudi Arabia match, which North Korea lost, 1-0. But five days later in Yangon, Myanmar, he contributed to a 6-1 win over the home country with a signature headed goal.