From a window seat on the world’s only one-star airline, Air Koryo, I took a break from the inflight North Korean programming and peered out the window. Pristine lakes and rolling mountains pierced the clear blue sky. Below, farmers dotted the expanses of green fields, manually transplanting rice, an activity almost every dutiful North Korean citizen is obligated to participate in as a matter of national honor.
After landing, I anxiously passed through customs and inspection into the airport arrival terminal where I was supposed to meet by my tour guides, Pak and Son-Hyang. I propped myself up against an airport terminal wall that looked like a military shed retrofitted for civilian use. The North Koreans around me watched me with a mixture of curiosity, fear, distrust and indignation. I met their gaze with a nervous smile, reminding myself why I was there: to use sport as a bridge to understanding and experiencing the most isolated country in the world.
As a student and athlete, cultural diplomacy through sport has become the foundation for my international experiences, and I have often used sport as a means to develop relationships and cross-cultural understanding. As a former college athlete, I took an interdisciplinary approach to my education, combining my Russian and International Relations degrees with my passion for football (soccer). My first attempt researching Sport-Diplomacy materialized while I was an exchange student in 2012 at Russian State University of the Humanities in Moscow. To compensate for missing my third soccer season, I completed an ethnography of Russian national identity and Hooliganism in football, those who instigate organized violent riots driven by racist and nationalist sentiments. This proved to be a stepping-stone for future research on how sports can ease or exacerbate political tensions.
My senior thesis focused on three cases in particular: 1971 Ping Pong Diplomacy between the United States and China, the failed U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics, and the disruption of apartheid South Africa through rugby sanctions in the 1990s. Each case is a unique example of how communities use sport to motivate change. Sport simultaneously divides and unites a people, while also generating political resources, including symbols, norms, values, narratives, and national heroes.
After graduating, I traveled to China to work alongside a nonprofit coordinating the placement of international students with host families, and decided to travel to North Korea on my own. The Sporting Interest Tour run by Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) lasted five days—four days in the capital Pyongyang and one at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which separates North and South Korea. Our two tour guides were graduates of a specialized vocational school where they were taught exactly what to say (and what not to say) to foreigners. Nevertheless, our guides were hospitable, generous, and patient, supporting the cultural discovery of our 6 person group at every step of the way.
When I told friends and acquaintances about my travel plans to North Korea, they peppered me with similar lines: “Be careful. It’s dangerous. It’s so isolated. Why not go somewhere else? They play soccer? They have sports? They let in Americans?” I refrained from telling them that these preconceptions and prejudices were precisely the reason I was going.
Each tour begins with an almost religious experience at Mansudae Grand Monument, comprised of two colossal-sized statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s two former, yet eternal, leaders. Though soccer in particular was a focus on the tour, we also saw sites common to most tourists. We strolled through the Orewellian Grand People’s Study House and the Korean War Museum, toured the captured U.S. spy ship the USS Pueblo and swam at the country’s extravagant water park. We stayed at the lavish Yanggakdo Hotel, complete with a pool, ping-pong table, billiards, and karaoke bar, seemingly designed to make us forget about the not-so-secret surveillance happening from the fourth floor. It would have been naïve to think I would see the “real North Korea” or that our tour wouldn’t be highly regulated, so before my trip, I devoured literature on Korean society and history, especially stories from dissenters and survivors of the famine in the 1990s. I became a keen follower of the news coming out of the Hermit Kingdom.
Officially called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the name North Korea is a Western construct, acknowledging and legitimizing South Korea, an unknown distinction in DPRK. Since its founding, the country has been governed by The Juche (Joo-chay) Idea, a doctrine that stresses the importance of the individual as a master of their own destiny, which is used to uphold traditional Korean family values, respect for the military, political isolation, and economic self-reliance. A byproduct is a religious-like devotion to their supreme leaders, starting with Kim Il-sung. On the bank of the Taedong River, the Juche Tower, crowned by a flame and triad symbol of DPRK, the sickle, hammer, and artist’s brush, imposingly overlooks Pyongyang.
Save for the few states with which it has formal political ties, DPRK is politically isolated. Yet, sports in DPRK transcend Juche; a week before I arrived, the DPRK national soccer team played Uzbekistan and their volleyball team was in Mongolia. While most DPRK citizens are isolated from everyday politics, they are connected to their country’s sporting events through various media. Teaching DPRK citizens, military personnel, and other foreign tourists how to throw a rugby ball and American football, we shared our passion for sport. This connection helped fill the void created by political and ideological stalemate.
On the first day of the tour, our group convened at May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world, able to accommodate up to 150,000 fans. Both teams playing that day, SongBun and WolmiDo are sponsored by and include members of the DPRK military. Though the game started at 9:00 am on a Wednesday, but local fans and tourists alike cheered late into extra-time. As SongBun secured a last minute extra-time win, the 200 fans in the stadium rose from their seats to cheer. After a few days of exploring, eating delicious cuisine, and even going to a shooting range, we were primed for our YPT v. DPRK tour guide match.
The simplicity of soccer makes it nearly universal. This match in particular was a first-rate opportunity for cross-cultural communication via the lens of sport. Behind Mt. Taeson, a temple and joyous theme park adjacent gave the atmosphere an unforgettable air. Our makeshift pitch using t-shirts, backpacks and boxes gave me a flashback of using the same materials as sidelines and goalposts as a kid. Similar to Ping-Pong Diplomacy when both U.S. and Chinese counterparts presented each other with gifts prior to their tournament, we presented our DPRK friends with Argentina and Brazil soccer jerseys as a gesture of good will between ordinary citizens before our match. When we took to the pitch, we weren’t Korean, Swedish, Irish, or American, we were goalies, defenders, mid-fielders, strikers, and subs. Playing against a former DPRK National Team goalie gave the game and scoring a goal extra weight. Though we pushed, slid, yelled, argued, and cheered, the informal setting painted our game in an affable light.
During half-time, we chatted about DPRK’s World Cup appearances and football legends. Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, two soccer stars, effectively divided our group, as we joined what seems an almost universal debate of who could outplay the other. Despite DPRK’s political isolation, its citizens were still well-versed in the global developments in the domain of sport.
With some success, I invited onlookers, military men, groups of old women and their grandchildren in their trademark red scarves to join us. Their curiosity and warm reception highlights that connecting through a shared passion increases our understanding of ourselves and those we perceive to be different. At the end of the match, positivity permeated through the hot summer breeze as the final whistle blew in YPT’s favor 3-2. After our match, we ate our last meal together, butchered karaoke songs, and got ready for the flight to Beijing. At the airport, no tears were shed from either party, just a glance that said, “Thank you for visiting us, see you again, friend.”
Comparing one’s culture to another creates space to explore and explain cultural differences in a constructive manner. Misunderstandings arise from the clash of values and expectations. Despite our differences, we used sport to find our overwhelming similarities. Perhaps one day, the on-going cross-cultural interaction among DPRK and international athletes could one day reach a critical mass for social change based on the values that sport projects: fairness, respect, cooperation, transparency, individual expression, and diversity. Until then, the friends I made in DPRK know I’ll be waiting for the rematch.
Danny is a recent student-athlete graduate of Beloit College (2014) double majoring inInternational Relations and Russian language. He is currently an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Chicago at the Center for Economic Progress. He intends to enroll at SIT Graduate Institute in the fall of 2016. For more information about his time in North Korea or other works on national-identity, sport and citizen diplomacy please contact him at [email protected]