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Horseback Riding in N. Korea

#Korea, Today and Tomorrow l 2023-09-27

Korea, Today and Tomorrow

ⓒ Getty Images Bank
An analysis of U.S. commercial satellite imagery indicates that horse-riding grounds have been built or are under construction in 20 regions across North Korea. They include four riding grounds in Pyongyang and Gangwon Province each, one in Nampo and Ryanggang Province each, four in North and South Pyongyan Provinces, three in North and South Hwanghae Provinces and one in South Hamgyong Province. It has been confirmed that leader Kim Jong-un’s Ryongsong Residence in Pyongyang and his vacation villa in Wonsan on the east coast also have their own riding facilities dedicated solely to the leader. How is horse-riding perceived in North Korea? 

Today, we’ll examine horseback riding in the communist state with Kim Dong-seon, honorary professor of College of Arts and Sports at Kyonggi University. 

N: In February 2022, North Korea held a large-scale equestrian event to celebrate the Lunar New Year. The event was attended by all high-ranking officials, including then-Chairman of the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly Choe Ryong-hae. 

N: The event offered a variety of interesting attractions, including horse-riding and dressage demonstrations as well as horse racing. Riders performed various difficult movements to the music, such as doing a flip on a horse. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television, in a very unusual move, provided live coverage of the horse racing for over an hour. 

Since the opening of the Mirim Riding Club in North Korea, horse-riding has received wide media coverage in the country. This reflects Kim Jong-un’s governing style that brings to light something spectacular and the country’s typical, lavish window dressing. It could also be seen as a message that ordinary citizens can enjoy horseback riding, just like their leader. 

Kim once said, “Keep your feet firmly on the ground of your homeland and keep your eyes on the world.” The leader probably hoped to boast some of his tangible achievements. Also, he may have wanted to show that his policies put top priority on improving people’s lives and that his country pursues work-life balance, one of the latest global trends.

N: North Korea notes that horseback riding is one of Korea’s traditional customs. 

N: According to the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper, people in the ancient Korean kingdom of Goguryeo were best at horse-riding in Korean history. The paper said that the kingdom’s strong cavalry served as an effective shield to successfully defend the warrior state. It also stressed that the kingdom’s horse-riding traditions and gear became widespread in southern Korean kingdoms such as Baekje, Silla and Gaya. 

Horseback riding is a Korean tradition that has lasted for thousands of years since the Gojoseon era. During the years of Goguryeo, horse-riding was one of the criteria used in selecting outstanding individuals who would serve the country. The Joseon Dynasty held horseback riding events, where participants performed various acrobatic feats on a horse. 

North Korea also says that the Korean people have trained the body and the mind since ancient times and even protected their land from Japanese invasions through horse-riding. It stresses that this tradition still continues at the Mirim Riding Club. 

N: The paper quoted leader Kim Jong-un as saying that horseback riding could create a great sensation because people can easily access the sport, which can be enjoyed all year round. It seems North Korea actively publicized horse-riding after the current leader came to power, with the Mirim Riding Club opening in Sadong District in Pyongyang in October 2013. 

N: It was initially a training ground for a cavalry unit. But Kim Jong-un instructed officials to renovate it as a riding ground and he visited the construction site several times. The horse-riding park has big and small horses so adults and children alike can enjoy the sport more easily. It has riding tracks and an indoor training ground as well. 

Covering over 600-thousand square meters, the Mirim Riding Club is a comprehensive, modern horse-riding facility equipped with grass tracks, soil tracks, an indoor equestrian training ground, a horse-riding school and more. It is mostly used by the ruling Kim family, the privileged class that has money and power, and foreigners. Nevertheless, North Korea tries to highlight that the general public can also enjoy leisure activities, just as citizens in capitalistic countries do, and that the country make great efforts to improve the quality of life for its people. 

N: The Mirim Riding Club provides riding lessons for ordinary citizens. It has offered an education course to students since 2015. Enrolled students study the theory of horse-riding using computers and videos, while those in different grades participate in their own practice sessions. 

N: Those who have completed the education course receive a certificate and become riders. In 2017, North Korean media reported a horse-riding event that took place at the riding club. 

N: The media said that a “draw” or “raffle” project was underway during the event. At the time, analysts spotted something that looks like betting slips for horse racing. 

N: For that reason, experts speculated that horse racing was introduced in North Korea. 

It appears that North Korea is interested in horse racing or sports betting, which was regarded as the exclusive property of capitalism. Local media said that the country prepared for prizes for those who would perform well at the Autumn Amateur Riders Competition and allowed people to bet on jockeys in a raffle-like system, in order to raise public awareness of horse-riding. But I imagine the cash-strapped North introduced the sports betting business to stir up a speculative drive in people and prod them into spending money so it can increase national revenue eventually. 

For horse-riding to develop into an industry, however, it is necessary to boost relevant businesses involving equestrian supplies and equipment, facilities and services. I think North Korea has yet to reach that level. Still, the country seems to be making efforts to nurture horse-riding as a full-fledged industry, considering that it sells horse betting slips and uses the Mirim Riding Club as a wedding hall. 

N: North Korea held a military parade in February to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the foundation of its armed forces. 

N: Leader Kim Jong-un’s horse cleared the way at the procession, followed by a white horse, which was described by local media as the horse of the leader’s daughter Kim Ju-ae. 

N: The scene generated speculation that a cult of personality surrounding the leader’s daughter has begun. In North Korea, a white horse is a special propaganda symbol for the Kim family. 

According to Greek historian Herodotus, white horses were regarded as sacred animals in ancient times. In Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, white horses were believed to carry patron saints or the world savior. In the mythologies in Northern Europe, white horses were viewed as a symbol that would bring good news. 

A white horse in North Korea symbolizes top leaders with a holy spirit and the so-called Baekdu bloodline, which refers to the direct lineage of regime founder Kim Il-sung. 

A museum at the Mirim Riding Club displays videos and documents related to horse-riding of three leaders of North Korea, namely, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. The materials show that the two former leaders loved horse-riding and the current leader inherited the tradition. It is said that a horse named Maebong, which former leader Kim Jong-il would ride, was the special breed of the Orlov Trotter presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Major memorial halls in North Korea exhibit pictures of Kim Il-sung riding a white horse while engaging in anti-Japanese guerilla activities in Manchuria and at Mt. Baekdu. It seems the image of a superman riding a white horse was handed down to Kim Jong-il. 

N: North Korea claims that regime founder Kim Il-sung rode a white horse at the battlefields during his anti-Japanese armed struggle in the colonial period. In the North, a white horse represents an image of an ideal leader. 

By adapting that image of his grandfather, current leader Kim Jong-un has been seeking to secure his ruling legitimacy. That’s why North Korean media frequently show the scenes of the leader riding a horse. The media showed him on a horse in the first year of his rule, when his support base was rather weak. When the breakdown of the North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi worsened domestic sentiment in 2019, the image of Kim Jong-un racing through snow-covered Mt. Baekdu on a white horse reminded the public of the importance of internal unity. In a documentary film aired in January 2022, the leader is seen on a white horse, beholding the rising sun. 

N: The film also features the leader on a white horse galloping through the forests at full speed, holding the horse’s reins with one hand. It seems the scenes are intended to draw attention to the Baekdu bloodline and strengthen internal solidarity. 

N: In recent years, North Korean media has often introduced people who learn to ride horses or enjoy horseback riding. 

N: The media say that horse-riding is a sport that can be enjoyed by everyone. North Korea’s propaganda outlets including Naenara have recently covered the story of the horse-riding craze in the country. 

As of 2023, the Mirim Riding Club charges seven US dollars for admission and 50 dollars for one-hour horse-riding. It is a hefty sum of money for locals, as the amount is equivalent to an 80-kilogram bag of rice. Given that, it is assumed that only a small number of North Koreans enjoy horseback riding. 

North Korea is interested in the sports betting business. It has looked for Chinese investors to build a factory producing sporting goods. Obviously, the North is turning its eyes to the sports-related industries. But it is necessary to increase the number of people who ride horses before developing horse-riding into an industry. For that goal, there should be more horse-riding facilities and their fees should be more affordable. The nation’s equestrian association hosts amateur horse-riding events to make the sport more popular. But considering North Korea’s current economic conditions and the income level of local residents, the country is still far from fulfilling the goal.

N: Kim Jong-un said that horseback riding can be easily accessible by the people. Apparently, though, it will take a considerable amount of time before making the leader’s remarks come true in North Korea.

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