In a rare media interview, North Korea's diplomatic representative in South Africa, Yop Pak Sung, said that Pyongyang decided at the last minute to send about 200 citizens.
"They are all supporters from North Korea. About 200 people came from Pyongyang on Monday and are staying at guest houses. They're from our country; they're not Chinese," Sung said by telephone. "Maybe some Chinese came as well, but those you saw on TV yesterday are Koreans from our country."
His statement could not be independently verified.
Two days ago, 1,000 Chinese actors and dancers landed here in South Africa holding tickets to all the North Korean soccer games.
North Korea's sports ministry had authorized a Chinese PR company to distribute the 1,400 tickets FIFA had allocated to Pyongyang. "The Chinese will support North Korea," China Sports Event Management Group's Wang Qi told Reuters on Monday. "They may surprise, and we come here with a view that something magical might happen."
About 40 North Korean fans could be seen in five rows of Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium, dressed in identical North Korea jerseys, hats and scarves and waving freshly unfurled mini North Korean flags.
North Korea's star striker, Jong Tae Se, wept as he looked out at them during the national anthem -- almost as if their presence were a surprise.
Some of the fans spoke to reporters on their way into the stadium, identifying themselves as North Koreans but refusing to elaborate or say who paid for their journey.
"I think [the North Korean players] will do well enough for us to stay for the whole month," Kim Yong Chul, 40, said in comments carried by several news agencies. "We also cheer for South Korea," another fan, Kim Yong Chon, was quoted as saying. "Korea is one nation and our hearts are with them too."
The fact that a Chinese PR company was in charge of distributing many of North Korea's tickets -- and that it chose to dole them out to actors and other performers -- fueled speculation that those decked out in North Korean jerseys were actually Chinese impostors.
Blogs, Facebook and Twitter have been abuzz with the rumor.
"It's totally sad if it's true that N. Korea paid Chinese actors to be in the stands and cheer on N. Korea," James Baraloto wrote in a Facebook discussion under a posting from SoccerJones.com.
"It must have been hard for them as the audience was 99 percent Brazilian, and it would be really sad if they really did pay a couple of Chinese fans to pose as North Korean fans," Li Heng Chan wrote in the same message string.
At Tuesday's game, the cluster of North Korean supporters was drowned out in a sea of more than 54,000 boisterous Brazil fans. The lowest-ranked team besides the host to qualify for the World Cup (No. 105), North Korea lost to No. 1 five-time champions Brazil 2-1 but managed to hold them scoreless for more than half the game.
North Koreans aren't allowed to leave their closed, secretive communist nation without government approval. While visiting South Africa, the North Korean players are accompanied by government minders, presumably to limit their contact with Western ideas or prevent them from trying to defect.
"They're kept private because they're only thinking about competition. They would like to meet journalists, but they don't have time," Sung said when asked about why the North Korean players don't appear at FIFA news conferences alongside other teams.
Pyongyang is notoriously secretive and controlling of its citizens, and the North Korean team's trip to the World Cup comes at a particularly high point in tensions on the Korean peninsula. The North was implicated in the alleged torpedoing of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, for which Pyongyang denies any involvement. But even today the North's main newspaper ran a commentary saying the incident has ratcheted up tensions so high that any even "minor accidental incident could trigger an all-out war."
Another North Korean diplomat in South Africa, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to speak to journalists, told AOL News he's upset that his country's appearance at the World Cup has sparked "fabrications and speculations" in the media.
"Why would we bring other nationalities instead of Koreans? What for? It's so strange to me," he said. "Truth will be revealed as history flows. We don't need to make an effort to reveal our truth," he said cryptically. "There are so many lies in this world, like about the Cheonan warship."
His colleague, Sung, was more optimistic about what World Cup publicity could do for his country. "All the members of our embassy went to watch at the stadium," he said. "We heard the vuvuzelas when our team scored and felt proud."
Asked whether the traditional South African trumpets might catch on back home in North Korea, Sung replied: "Yeah, why not?"