Michael Spavor likes a challenge. Since his first visit in 2001, his company, Paektu Cultural Exchange, has spent much of its time organising and supervising countless cultural exchange programs into the North Korea. He’s even met Kim Jong Un – one of the only Westerners to have done so – and his connections reach into the higher echelons of North Korean power politics. In short, if you want to get something done in the DPRK, call him up and he’ll see what he can do.
But as far as these kinds of projects go, putting together a hockey tournament during an international incident on the Korean peninsula is up there with the most tricky.
“The DPRK has not exactly become a top travel destination this year,” wrote Spavor in a post-tournament blog on the website of his organisation, Paektu Cultural Exchange. And for good reason: the beginning of the year saw the country test, so it claimed, a hydrogen bomb.
“Let the world admire Juche’s nuclear power state, socialist Chosun, the great Workers’ Party of Korea, by opening 2016 with the stirring sound of the hydrogen bomb,” the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun quoted Kim Jong as having said.
Not an attitude conducive to brotherhood and love between nations. But Spavor and co pulled it off. From the 7th to the 12th of March, the Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition went ahead as planned.
The DPRK has not exactly become a top travel destination this year
Spavor had been dining with North Korean colleagues when news of the country’s successful hydrogen bomb test broke back in January. Not able to hear what was being said on the TV as the news came out of Pyongyang, his colleagues excitedly told him what was going on.
“I couldn’t hear what was happening, and they mentioned ‘oh our country has announced, are proving that they have this kind of capability’,” he says.
Most people’s work dinners aren’t interrupted by colleagues jubilant about a nuclear test. But most workplaces aren’t like Michael Spavor’s.
Speaking to NK News a few weeks after the tournament was done, Spavor admits he was worried it wasn’t going to work out or that it would have to be postponed, and that he shared these concerns with his colleagues.
“To be honest there was a point when I thought ‘Man, we should probably delay this till later, I mean, we’re gonna have a lot of people dropping out,’” he says. “But others felt very positive and pushed forward and said ‘you know we have enough support, we’ve got players who are pumped and excited, they’ve planned to do this in March’.”
Hockey and North Korea go way back. The game came to the country in the 1950s, brought by Chinese and Russian workers, and the country has competed in international events ever since. And while their success has been limited (the International Ice Hockey Federation places the men’s team at 42 and the women’s at 27 in the world rankings), the sport remains a popular past time.
Spavor first discovered North Korea’s penchant for pucks back in 2005
Spavor first discovered North Korea’s penchant for pucks back in 2005. Seeing a sign advertising an event while on a visit, he and a friend convinced the locals to let them watch after they showed up at the stadium. After the game, Spavor got chatting with the organizers.
“That was the conception of the idea,” Spavor says. “We actually talked to one of the coaches there that day afterwards, talked about maybe some day doing some exchange and it was just a very brief conversation and he said “that’d be great!”, bringing over Canadians.”
But it wasn’t until Dennis Rodman’s visit in 2013, which Spavor played a crucial part in organising, that the idea really became something feasible.
“During the trip we spent a lot of time with the Ministry of Sports people,” he says. “I also spent time with the leadership, and hockey and skiing exchanges were discussed at great length.”
It was around June 2015 that Spavor was contacted by Scott Hao and Gordon Israel, a pair of consultants with extensive experience in international consultancy, who pitched the idea of a hockey tournament in the DPRK. Since the country’s national team would be leaving to play in Mexico the following month, March 2016 was chosen as the perfect time. A friend of Spavor’s in Shanghai got together the players, and the trip was planned.
Right upon arrival, the itinerary was rigorous.
“First day we arrived we did training sessions, then a game, and then the second day we did a game, and the third day they did a training session and then two games,” Spavor explains. “They were playing long games and long training sessions.”
By the end the players, exhausted from days of playing the country’s top athletes at a relentless pace, asked to do a little sightseeing ahead of the big final game, which involved two 15 minute periods between the North Koreans and the foreigners, and two mixed.
But nuclear tests were not the only issue as the team was heading to North Korea: American tourist Otto Warmbier had just been sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor for bad behavior when visiting the country. In a move seemingly intended to stop a repeat of the Warmbier case, the US State Department sent a stern email to Spavor which they requested he share with his American players.
But nuclear tests were not the only issue as the team was heading to North Korea
“If you insist on going into North Korea despite the advice in our Travel Warning, ‘Behave like a boy scout troop visiting someone’s grandmother for tea’,” the message read. “Be unfailingly polite and respectful. Behavior that would be dismissed as hijinks and shenanigans here can land you in jail there. Wait until you leave to have your rowdy post-game celebration.”
Spavor has to admit he shared some of the State Department’s fears. Hockey players have a reputation for hard partying and big egos, and it’s common to see games involve fights between rivals take place right on the ice. It was for this reason that it was important, he says, to keep them busy and focused on the games and training.
“The trip itself was pretty intense,” he says. “We mainly strategised to have a lot of time on the ice so they’d be tired and not drinking all night. We wanted it to be really serious about sport, and focused on that.”
Spavor is something of a man of mystery and our interview veers between on-the-record and off-the-record at breakneck speed. He’s keen to avoid misunderstanding and misquotation, and doesn’t want to jeopardize contacts in the country he’s spent years developing.
Hockey players have a reputation for hard partying and big egos
Many would argue that these kinds of close relationships between cultural exchange ambassadors and the authorities isn’t conducive to improving North Korea’s human rights issues or opening up its economy, and it’s not clear what would happen to Paektu Cultural Exchange, or the myriad other groups that rely on the DPRK for business, if the regime were to fall and the peninsula were united.
The eternal question about these kinds of events is whether they make a difference. It’s a well trodden argument in North Korea follower circles: sanctions or cultural exchange? Tourism or human rights tribunals? Spavor is convinced that games like this can be “the first step towards peace”, and that many external parties are not interested in pushing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“There’s a whole business surrounding war,” he argues. “The people who are invested in selling military hardware or military equipment would probably not be interested in sports engagement, because that would not support their means.”
Images from Paekdu Cultural Exchange