The 2024 Gangwon Winter Youth Olympics, a festival for people the world over, is ready to open.
The international sporting event will take place in Gangwon Province in the eastern part of South Korea from January 19 to February 1. About 1,900 young athletes from some 80 countries will compete in 15 disciplines across seven sports for two weeks. The first edition of the Youth Winter Olympics hosted in Asia will showcase the essence of winter sports. We can’t help but wonder what sports are played in winter in North Korea. Today, we’ll take a look at North Korea’s winter sports with Seong Mun-jeong, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science.
Popular winter sports include skiing, snowboarding and skating, with many people flocking to ski resorts and skating rinks during the cold winter. Do North Korean people also enjoy these sports?
In North Korea, most winter sports are played in the form of fun activities. Even in freezing weather, children come out to the fields to enjoy winter activities. In the North, there’s a saying that jangdokdae(장독대), or the outdoor place to store traditional jars, and children never freeze. On snowy days, children divide into teams to have a snowball fight and spin their tops on the ice. Children all over the world love snow, don’t they? North Korean children are no exception. When winter comes, many children in the North go to ice rinks or frozen rivers and rice paddies. There, they slide over the ice in a sleigh. They mostly ride on a small, single-bladed sled.
Winter in North Korea is called the “harsh season.” In the Kaema Plateau region, winter starts in October and continues through May the following year. North Korea’s winter comes earlier and goes later than South Korea’s. Although winter in North Korea is bitterly cold, children love to enjoy outdoor winter activities. It snows a lot in North Korea. Also, the country has many mountains and slopes, which turn into a playground in winter. Children ride a sled and spin their tops on the ice to compete each other to see who is stronger.
Citizens in Pyongyang, compared to those in other regions, have a higher social and economic status and enjoy various benefits in leisure life. In winter, they also enjoy skating.
While children enjoy winter activities such as sledding, ice fishing is popular among adults.
At the famous Hwacheon Mountain Trout Ice Festival in South Korea, many participants fish mountain trout under the thick ice on the stream with artificial lures. In cold winter in North Korea, many also come to the Taedong River and drill holes in the ice and troll for fish through the ice. South Korean anglers typically use fishing paste, while their North Korean counterparts use live earthworms for bait.
When the Taedong River that runs through Pyongyang is covered with ice, Pyongyang citizens are engrossed in ice fishing. North Korea has designated “months for winter sports” since the 1980s to help locals improve their physical strength. For example, winter sports for January and February include skating, skiing and sledding. Also in December, a sports competition is held.
The Osandok Prize Sports Contest is North Korea’s largest sports competition held in winter. The name comes from Osandok, Hoeryong in North Hamgyong Province, which is the birthplace of Kim Jong-suk, the mother of former leader Kim Jong-il.
At the contest, sports teams from all around the country compete in multiple events including ice hockey, figure skating and skiing. The current Kim Jong-un regime has actively promoted skiing, in particular.
In 2016, leader Kim Jong-un visited Ryanggang Province to observe skiers in training. At the time, the leader highly praised skiing. Kim is known to have enjoyed skiing while studying in Switzerland in his teens. He built the Masikryong Ski Resort in 2013.
Kim Jong-un studied in Bern, Switzerland for six years. There, he experienced skiing in winter and basketball in summer. Apparently influenced by his experience, the leader decided to build the Masikryong Ski Resort. North Korea actually built the top-of-the-line ski facilities in a very short period of time.
The Masikryong Ski Resort is four times the size of the Yongpyeong Ski Resort, which is the largest ski resort in South Korea. The ski slopes in the huge North Korean ski resort are 40 to 120 meters wide, and the ski courses include those for beginners and advanced skiers. When the ski resort was under construction, North Korea even created a political slogan called “Masikryong Speed” to encourage the workers to complete the ski resort quickly.
The Masikryong Ski Resort even appears in a children’s song. North Korea touts it as the biggest construction project of leader Kim Jong-un.
Located near Wonsan in North Korea’s Gangwon Province on the east coast, the ski resort covers an area of about 14 million square meters. It has ten slopes with a total length of 50 kilometers and over 400 hotel rooms.
North Korea completed the supersized ski resort in just over a year, as a result of the so-called “speed battle,” which refers to a campaign of loyalty unique to North Korea. It aims to mobilize labor to produce the best result in the shortest period time.
Skiing is not a popular sport in North Korea. Most North Korean residents cannot afford to buy high-priced ski gear. Despite the reality, why does North Korea put emphasis on skiing?
Many questioned whether North Korea had enough skiers to use the new ski resort. But North Korea had a different purpose. Leader Kim Jong-un knew that South Korea would host the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018. North Korea probably thought that some events of the Winter Games could be held in North Korea. With this purpose in mind, the North built the ski resort that would be capable enough to hold some games of the Winter Olympics.
North Korean media say that foreign ski resorts usually have an elevation difference of about 200 to 400 meters between the starting point and the arrival area, with the slope angle measured at 12 to 20 degrees. The media claim that the elevation difference in the North Korean ski resort reaches 700 meters so it is fully equipped with slopes for advanced skiers.
In July 2011, the South Korean alpine town of PyeongChang was named as the host city for the 2018 Winter Olympics. That year, Kim Jong-un was named supreme commander of the armed forces in North Korea and started his rule, following the death of his father. Afterwards, North Korea signaled its intention to host some events of the PyeongChang Winter Games.
In 2015, a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan known as the Chosun Sinbo raised the idea of splitting some events of the PyeongChang Games with North Korea and mentioned the Masikryong Ski Resort as a competition venue.
But the two Koreas stopped short of sharing the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. North Korea had to be satisfied with the joint training with the South at the Masikryong Ski Resort ahead of the PyeongChang Games.
North Korea issued commemorative stamps featuring the theme of winter sports in 2022. Although North Korea did not participate in the Beijing Winter Olympics, citing the global spread of COVID-19, the commemorative stamps showed that the country still supported the Beijing Games diplomatically. Actually, North Korea has shown keen interest in the Winter Olympics overall. How has it performed at the previous Winter Games?
In the 1960s and the early 1970s, winter sports were very active in North Korea. As a matter of fact, North Korea won a medal at the Winter Olympics before South Korea. At the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, North Korean athlete Han Pil-hwa(한필화) won a silver medal in the 3,000-meter speed skating event to become the first Asian woman to capture a Winter Olympics silver medal. It was a great achievement, indeed.
North Korea has participated in nine Winter Olympics so far, winning one silver and one bronze.
At the 1992 Albertville Games in France, Hwang Ok-sil ranked third in the women’s 500-meter short track speed skating event to take home the bronze medal and North Korea’s second Winter Olympics medal.
At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, 22 North Korean athletes competed in five disciplines. The North set a record of sending the largest number of athletes to the largest number of sports for the Winter Olympics that the country has ever participated. At the PyeongChang Games, North Korean figure skaters stood out.
Figure skaters representing North Korea include Kim Hyuk(김혁) and Nam Hye-yong(남혜영), who won a gold medal in pair skating at the 1986 Sapporo Winter Asian Games. At the 2011 Winter Asian Games, North Korea’s Ri Ji-hyang(리지향) and Tae Won-hyuk(태원혁) took the bronze medal in pair skating. Also, Kim Un-ha and Ri Mok-ran(리목란) are gaining popularity in North Korea, like Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na in South Korea.
At the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, the North Korean figure skating pairs of Ryom Tae-ok(렴대옥) and Kim Ju-sik(김주식) broke their own personal record on their first Olympic stage to finish 13th place overall. The two athletes made their debut at the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria, in October 2015 to take fifth place.
The pair of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik made history by ranking 13th at the PyeongChang Olympics, the best result in North Korean figure skating history. However, no North Korean player has attracted attention on the international stage since then. That is because North Korea’s winter sports facilities are so inadequate that it is difficult to produce good results in the global arena.
Even if North Korea has ideal natural conditions, there should be sports facilities and excellent athletes to actually capitalize on those conditions. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in North Korea. The impoverished North finds it difficult to build top-class facilities and provide continuous support to athletes. All things considered, it is quite challenging for the country to raise the level of its athletic prowess to that of 1964, when speed skater Han Pil-hwa won a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. To reach that level, young athletes should receive consistent training in a good environment. But there aren’t many ice rinks in North Korea. Only a few people can get training in a limited way, and North Korean athletes have many limitations in performing outstandingly on the world stage.
North Korea has ideal conditions for enjoying winter sports, as it has cold winter with a lot of snow as well as steep mountains. Locals are also greatly interested in winter sports. Unlike summer sports, however, winter sports require expensive gear and it costs to maintain relevant facilities. For North Korea facing economic difficulties, it is not easy to provide support to winter sports.