Many people in my former country love sports: under the slogan “A Healthy Body is the Gem of the Country,” North Korea encourages people to take interest in sports from as early as elementary school. Since most men have to serve in the military following high-school graduation, young boys tend to spend more time and effort on working out than on their academic performance. Among popular sports are Soccer, Taekwondo, gymnastics, boxing and track and field, but authorities tend to place more emphasis on sports related to national defense than merely for entertainment.
Looking back, I believe that sports played an important role in providing consolation for people whose pride had been hurt by the economic difficulty of the mid 1990’s, or who became dissatisfied with their situation during that period. Perhaps for this reason, athletes who win medals in international competitions have long been provided with benefits in North Korea.
Winners of gold medals earn fame by being titled as “an honorable athlete “ or “People’s Athlete” and the government showers them with gifts, such as luxurious cars and houses. When athletes win medals at international competitions, especially when North Korea is faced with difficulty, their achievements are therefore used as political tool to drive the masses to show bigger loyalty toward the regime and prove the superiority of the regime to its people.
Among those who were showered with such benefits were Chung Sung Wook, the North Korean marathoner who won a gold medal at the International Marathon Competition, and Kye Soon Hee, who won several international Judo competitions. But that reminds me of something interesting: most North Korean athletes who win international competitions are women. Taking into account that North Korean athletes are at a disadvantage in terms of training and support, it is however surprising that they have been able to win international competitions.
In a country where every little success is used for the sake of sustaining and promoting the regime, its natural that the regime is going to use achievements in sports for political propaganda. As such, athletic matches in which North Koreans win are selectively chosen to be aired throughout North Korea, with competitions very rarely aired live. After seeing the results, North Korean authorities decide which matches they want to air within the country.
As of late, though, it has become increasingly rare for North Koreans to win major international competitions and therefore Pyongyang is instead now focusing on emphasizing the participation of North Korean athletes in such competitions, rather than the medals they win.
Nothing is more important than an ostentatious display of power in North Korea. As such, authorities put the most highly qualified athletes in one team and send them off for international tournaments. North Korea also has a league in which different teams compete against each other, domestically. However, since the most talented athletes are always placed in the same domestic team, it’s not hard to know which team is going to win! For spectators and sports fans, such matches are therefore not very exciting to watch…
Also, there are not many people who can spend time and money on watching sports matches for leisure and as a result, I don’t have any memory of voluntarily going to see a sports match. However, when a foreign team travels to North Korea to compete with a North Korean team – whether it is a friendly match or not – the sales of the tickets skyrocket. Clack market tickets even emerge for sale outside the stadium. You might be surprised, but North Korea also has some frantic sports fans who sneak bottles of liquor into the stadium and act just like the hooligans you’d see at the English football league. For that reason, North Korean police check your body and belongings to make sure you don’t bring hard alcohol with you into the stadium.
North Korea also has some frantic sports fans who sneak bottles of liquor into the stadium and act just like the hooligans you’d see at the English football league
When popular international competitions such as the Olympics are held, matches in which North Korea does not participate are also aired. However, due to the shortage of electricity, you often cannot watch to the end of the game because the TV turns off when electricity runs out. Maybe the power situation would be helped if they made sure news reports about the Kims overlooking government facilities were aired on TV!
Because of the shortage of electricity, so many young students interested in soccer and basketball watch games on CD and USB on their computers. That’s how they try to learn the techniques of professional players. People who went abroad to study or on business trips sometimes also bring back recorded video footage of sports games stored on CD and USB. I think North Koreans were able to learn about sports players such as Michael Jordan, Zidan, Messi and Ronaldo in this way.
In conclusion, the North Korean regime invests only in a few selective fields of sports for the benefits and sake of the country. As such, results are used for political propaganda — and to provide a small bit of pleasure to suppress the dissatisfaction and displeasure of the masses. People have limited ways to watch and relish the sports games, meaning fans will go to the extent of watching games which were smuggled in. However, I think the knowledge of sports fans may have deepened over the years as a result of this.
The above is the perspective of the author, and may not be representative of all North Korean defectors.
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Editing by Rob York and translation by Elizabeth Jae
Jinhyok Park joined NK News' Ask a North Korean contributors in spring 2016, and has education and living experiences in Pyongyang, North Korea and Washington, D.C. He is in his late 30s and married to a fellow North Korean defector. He came to U.S. in 2011 and is studying at a U.S. college. He can be reached at [email protected].