Korea United FC

FC Basel's starting left back Park Joo-Ho, left, and Pak Kwang-Ryong, their reserve striker, resting during training. Sacha Grossenbacher

On a Saturday afternoon in mid-January, F.C. Basel, Switzerland's most successful team of the past decade, played an exhibition game against Dutch giant Feyenoord. The game took place not in the drizzly port city of Rotterdam -- or, for that matter, in the affluent Swiss pharmaceutical town astride the Rhine -- but on Spain's Costa del Sol, where both clubs spent part of their mid-winter breaks.

Before the start of the second half, a pair of first-year Basel players sat beside one another on the bench, stretched out their legs, admired Marbella's royal-blue sky and appeared to make small talk. No surprise there; they are teammates after all. But what no one appeared to notice -- not that there were many people there besides a hundred or two maniacal Feyenoord supporters -- was the geo-political gravitas of this potential photo-op. It is, quite literally, a photo that is not allowed to be taken: Park Joo-Ho of South Korea, Basel's 25-year-old starting left back, sat beside Pak Kwang-Ryong of North Korea, the team's 19-year-old substitute forward.

For Koreans on either side of the 38th parallel -- the world's most heavily fortified border -- there can be severe consequences for fraternizing with the enemy. The armistice that ended the Korean War was signed on July 27, 1953, but a peace treaty was never put in place; technically, the two countries remain at war. In the Communist North, those suspected of mere contact with South Koreans are, according to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2012, subject to lengthy terms in "horrendous detention facilities or forced labor camps with chronic food and medicine shortages, harsh working conditions, and mistreatment by guards." Though the democratic South has far more freedoms, its far-reaching National Security Law continues to stifle any exchange with, and interest in, North Korea. In short: A South Korean and a North Korean should not be shooting the breeze on a sunny afternoon in Spain.

And yet, side-by-side they sit. Park from the South and Pak from the North. The two are not only peers, but also collaborators at work toward a common goal: To help win soccer games for FC Basel. The Swiss side has won many this season, including its biggest-ever in December, an improbable 2-1 victory over Manchester United that propelled them into the knockout round of the Champions League while eliminating last year's runners-up. Ten days after Basel's stunning upset came the death of Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's notoriously eccentric dictator. Since then, there has been talk of a new day under the leadership of his son, the little-known Kim Jong-Un. How this new day will unfold is anyone's guess, but for now, the uneasy status quo remains in Pyongyang and Seoul -- and Basel.

"It's something special and something new also for us," says Basel's 36-year-old coach Heiko Vogel, speaking in his native German at the club's spa hotel in Marbella. "When they joined our team there were some orders from the North Korean government. So it's OK if we have a picture of the whole team or pictures during the matches, but if you want to do an interview or pick some pictures of both, that means …" He trails off and pauses to find the right word, in English this time: "War."

The two Koreans arrived in Basel within days of one another in June. First came the South Korean, Park, a deceptively quick left back plucked for 500,000 euros from the J-League. Five days later, Basel announced the addition of the North Korean, the imposing 6-foot-2 striker Pak, from second-division Swiss team FC Wil. After accepting an invitation to train with Basel's U-21 squad, Pak wowed Basel execs with the hallmarks of North Korean football: superior fitness and discipline. But Pak also displayed surprising skills with the ball at his feet and playing behind the strikers. "We have high hopes for him," says Basel president Bernhard Heusler, while watching him train in Marbella. Heusler signed the teenager to a five-year contract, beating out other forward-thinking clubs like Ajax and Udinese. "I believe he can make it, but it's a long-term project."

Pak's potential was so enticing that Basel was undeterred by the possibility of political tension between its two new signings. It's a stance one might expect in the world's most famously neutral country. "We were fully aware and were very transparent," says Georg Heitz, FC Basel's sports director. The team notified both players' camps of the situation and received no objections. Beyond the aforementioned "no photos together" mandate from the North Korean government, Heitz says that there were no special concerns about Park and Pak co-existing as teammates.

Upon joining Basel, the players themselves had bigger concerns than politics. Neither came with top-flight experience in European soccer. Both struggled to understand or communicate in the German, Swiss-German or English spoken throughout the team. But as the season kicked off in July, the newcomers gradually settled into their roles. South Korean Park became a regular as Basel's starting left back; North Korean Pak, used mainly as a late substitute, appeared in 12 of Basel's 18 league games through the winter break. He hasn't scored for the senior team yet, but he's the first North Korean to play in the Champions League, despite countryman Jong Tae-se's more substantial resume (five goals in eight Bundesliga II games for VfL Bochum this season). Pak's promise is plain to see.

Less evident, at least to the public eye, is how he is getting along with Park. It was perhaps inevitable that Basel's only two players whose native tongue is Korean -- and who also share the same surname, though Anglicized differently -- would become friendly. But just how close can they get? "We both know that we need to be cautious to a certain degree," Park told The Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, in September. "So we don't eat meals together or invite each other to our homes when it's just the two of us."

In other words: together, but still apart.

There's an unmistakable weariness in Park Joo-ho's voice, and it's not just because he has been roused from an afternoon nap to field a call from a reporter. "Does this interview have a lot to do with Pak Kwang-Ryong?" he asks in Korean. Park is home in Basel now, cold and nearly dark already, a week before the Swiss season resumes. He'd much rather talk about Korean hip-hop -- Leessang, Drunken Tiger, and the latest from Dynamic Duo -- but he's polite. "People always ask, but I always answer them the same way. It could be a sensitive subject, so there are certain points that I don't really like to mention."

The questions are coming more frequently these days. Before eliminating United in the Champions League group phase and then beating Bayern Munich 1-0 in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 on Feb. 22, FC Basel was known primarily for being Roger Federer's favorite team and for its fierce rivalry with FC Zurich. But if Basel can get a result in Munich in the second leg, it will, incredibly, advance to Europe's elite eight. With Basel's new prominence has come more curiosity about the relationship between the two Koreans.

Park is guarded in his responses. "We don't have any problems. We're a soccer team, so we have to get along with each other," he says. "Instead of saying that we're close friends, I think it's fairer to say that our relationship is mutual: I'm cool with him, like how I'm cool with all the other members of the team."

Though Park says he was given no specific rules from his advisors or the South Korean government on how to deal with a North Korean teammate, his discretion is understandable. In the upside-down sphere of North-South politics, being an enemy is more virtuous than being a friend. Still, observing the two interact up close in Marbella, one has to suspect that the Koreans' link is more inextricable than he's letting on.

"They're very close," says Basel's Australian international Scott Chipperfield, who has seen a lot of players come and go in his 11 seasons with the club. "They don't speak much German and only a little English, so they keep together pretty much." Other teammates and coaches confirm that Park and Pak sit next to each other on buses and share the same music. When asked how the two Koreans get along, Nigerian-born assistant coach Nnamdi Aghanya smiles. "Very, very, very, very, very well," he says. "Very well, indeed. They're a credit to both of their countries."

Of course, Pak's side of the story remains largely untold as the team has shielded the North Korean from the media, even though his teammates say his English is better than his South Korean counterpart. (Leave it to the Swiss, but FC Basel has assigned a young Korean woman as his English instructor in the hope it will speed up his learning.)

What is known about Pak comes from 65-year-old Swiss businessman Karl Messerli, a former professional soccer player who has become a middleman between the North Korean government and European soccer clubs. (In addition to Pak, Messerli has brought four other North Koreans to Switzerland, with four more to come later this year.)

According to Messerli, with whom Pak lives in Basel, the teenager is chatty and a "very clever guy" who reads everything from Shakespeare to world history. Though Pak does have a government "handler" -- a former soccer referee who checks in on him every few weeks -- he also has access to a world that's been closed off to regular North Korean citizens. Yes, he has an iPhone and, yes, he updates his own Facebook page in multiple languages. Yet it's no surprise that Pak's overseas exploits go unpublicized back home. Messerli says that Pak's mother, still in Pyongyang, will be visiting Switzerland later this year. Pak's father passed away in 2007.

Messerli won't talk about where Pak's money goes ("Swiss people don't speak about money, sorry," he says), but he insists that the North Korean has few restrictions -- except the one, of course, that prevents cozying up to, or being photographed with, his neighbor from the South. "The case is sensitive," Messerli says. "Not for the players, but for the stupid politicians." Not for the coach, either, apparently. The youthful Vogel, who was in his teens when the Berlin Wall fell, isn't afraid to get a little idealistic about his Korean players. "This sport has shown often that it breaks through borders, lines," he says. "And if we can help them help the two countries come together, that would be gigantic."

In soccer, as in life, actions speak louder than words -- whether those words are in German, Swiss-German, Korean or English. At the end of June, Basel played a preseason scrimmage against an amateur team in a sleepy Bavarian town near the Austrian border. The North Korean scored four goals, the last of which, in the 72nd minute, was assisted by the South Korean. After the goal, the two Koreans, teammates for mere weeks, did what soccer players do: They hugged.

Michael J. Agovino is the author of "The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family From the Utopian Outskirts of New York City." He writes frequently about international soccer and is at work on a book on the subject.