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16 Feb, 2021 11:58

‘North Korea’s Ronaldo’: Ex-Juventus star ‘banished after Qatari club release over fears salary was going to Kim Jong-un’s regime’

‘North Korea’s Ronaldo’: Ex-Juventus star ‘banished after Qatari club release over fears salary was going to Kim Jong-un’s regime’

A bizarre report has emerged claiming that Han Kwang-song, a hotly-tipped footballer likened to Cristiano Ronaldo, has lost his lucrative contract at a Qatari club amid accusations of breaching UN sanctions by funding Kim Jong-un.

The highly promising 22-year-old, who was the first North Korean player to score in Italian top flight Serie A and was the first Asian player to be part of a Juventus first-team matchday squad, is said to have been released by Qatar Stars League giants Al-Duhail because of UN rules preventing North Koreans from working abroad.

Han had been in fine form for Al-Duhail as he helped them to win the league and played in the Asian Champions League, but the reported multi-million dollar contract he signed upon joining from Juve for around $8.5 million at the start of 2020 has now abruptly ended.

"Most, if not the full salary, would go to the government," said Dr Ramon Pacheco Pardo, an associate professor in international relations at King's College London, speaking to The Sun about the destination of Han's reported pay packet of around $112,000 a month.

"The worker, in this case a football player, would only retain a small part of the salary to pay for their living expenses."

The rules, aimed at preventing North Koreans from earning money that could fund the activities of Kim's regime, which includes a nuclear program, also apply to athletes.

"Han’s earnings would have been a clear source of income for the North Korean regime," Edward Howell, a researcher in international relations at the University of Oxford, told the outlet, adding that the forward's role in Qatar had already been in breach while suggesting that it had been allowed because of "weak enforcement" of the measures.

Han's skills and rapid rise to fame saw him dubbed "North Korea's Ronaldo", and he was in the spotlight at international level in October 2019 when his nation took on a South Korea side spearheaded by Premier League sensation Son, of Tottenham.

Despite a UN Security Council Resolution in December 2017 ordering all North Korean nationals earning income abroad to return within two years, Han signed for current Italian champions Juventus shortly before that deadline was supposed to have been enforced.

According to a UN report on sanctions breaches which The Sun said it had obtained, Han's wages dropped by a quarter this season, although he had been set for around $167,000 in bonuses from the club and was provided with a car, a housing allowance of more than $5,500 a month and business class air tickets between Doha and his homeland.

It added that he had signed a pledge not to transfer "any money, cost or amount to North Korea" with a Qatari bank, although the report said that experts had spoken of "creative workarounds to evade sanctions" which are "often" used by North Korea.

"Han’s alleged return to North Korea does highlight the role of UN sanctions, even though these have been rightly criticised for their weak enforcement power in curbing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions," said Howell.

Kim has reportedly followed Han's exploits closely, and international reports have said that he was banned from giving interviews by the regime.

North Korea remains under heavy wider international sanctions, and Dr Ramon said that any admiration for Han across his nation would not "reach the levels" that sports stars in other countries enjoy.

"This is because adulation is reserved for the Kim family," he explained. "And no one can overshadow this."

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