Korea, Today and Tomorrow

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Korea, Today and Tomorrow

N. Korea’s Sports in Kim Jong-un Era


Since the South Korean government declared COVID-19 an endemic on May 11, many people have been returning to their daily lives, taking off their face masks and resuming traveling or holding in-person meetings. 

The situation is similar in North Korea. The country had suspended large-scale sports events in an effort to prevent COVID-19 from spreading, but it has been hosting various athletic games as of late. 

So, why is North Korea moving to promote sports? Today, we’ll learn about North Korea’s sports policy and leisure sports in the current Kim Jong-un era from Seong Mun-jeong, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science. 

It’s been over ten years since the Kim Jong-un regime started in North Korea, following the death of his father and former leader Kim Jong-il in 2011. The country has since undergone significant changes in many areas, including politics, the military, the economy and society. What grabs our attention, in particular, is the country’s sports policy. 

In 2012, right after Kim Jong-un came to power, North Korea set up the State Sports Guidance Committee in charge of policies and projects related to sports. The leader has pushed for the state goal of building a sports powerhouse. 

One of the noticeable changes in North Korean sports under Kim Jong-un’s rule is the expansion of relevant infrastructure. The North built the Masikryong(마식령) Ski Resort and the Mirim Horse Riding Club. It also renovated various facilities at the Angol(안골) Sports Village in Pyongyang. New sports facilities that opened in the Kim Jong-un era include the Pyongyang International Football School. North Korea has actually produced famous football stars, including Han Kwang-song(한광성). It has let the footballers play in Europe, exploring a new channel to earn foreign currency. These are some of the changes in the sports area under the Kim Jong-un regime. 

In a move to strengthen its position in sports, North Korea has built a variety of sports facilities, including the Masikryong Ski Resort that opened in 2013 in Wonsan, Gangwon Province. 

The North has also built swimming pools, volleyball courts and roller-skating rinks nationwide and actively participated in international sporting events. 

The whole country should bubble with enthusiasm for sports and our sportspeople should fly higher the flag of the Republic at international games to open up bright prospects for building a sporting power. 

Leader Kim Jong-un stressed the importance of developing sports in his New Year’s speech in 2015. Why is the leader putting so much emphasis on building a sports powerhouse? 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and former U.S. basketball star player Dennis Rodman sat side by side at an exhibition game in Pyongyang, laughing out loud and clapping as they watched players from North Korea and the U.S. 

Kim Jong-un reportedly became a huge fan of basketball while he was studying in Switzerland in the 1990s, watching games of the U.S. National Basketball Association or NBA. After he assumed power, he even invited former NBA star Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang. Kim has a special interest in sports, which means a lot more than just sports for the leader. 

It is well known that Kim enjoyed sports during his time in Switzerland. After taking power, he made sports a major focus on his policies under the slogan of “a sports powerhouse,” in an apparent move to distinguish himself from old forces in the military and politics. That is, sports represent his major weapon. Sports are also one of the areas loved by young people. Through sports, North Korea could show the energetic and dynamic image of the younger generation. 

However, the slogan of “a sports powerhouse” would be meaningless without economic support. It’s no exaggeration to say that the North Korean economy has entered the phase of a second “Arduous March.” Since the North Korean leader has produced no substantial economic outcome so far, he has been focusing on athletic achievements to demonstrate the stability and confidence of his regime to the international community, though only in the short term. 

While former leader Kim Jong-il used culture and art for the regime’s propaganda and internal unity, the current leader has turned towards sports for the same purpose. 

The first thing I thought when I knew I had won was that I had made our beloved leader happy. I want to run toward the dear leader, and that’s what’s in my head right now. 

This is Rim Jong-sim, a North Korean weightlifter who won a gold medal in women’s weightlifting at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. When North Korean athletes produce good results at international competitions, they give all credit to their leader, just like Rim. Their remarks indicating their loyalty to the leader, at the greatest moment of their lives, help promote the communist regime and bring the North Korean people together. As a matter of fact, North Korea has used sports in its policy for a long time. 

People in South Korea engage in sports activities to feel happy and maintain their health. The concept of sports is completely different in North Korea. In the North, sports serve as an important means of making people remain loyal to the party, strengthen national defense and provide labor, by keeping their mind and body healthy. In this respect, North Korean people are forced to carry out sports activities for the sake of the state and the party. 

In North Korea, the basic goal of sports is to get the people prepared for labor and national defense through physical training and to promote the communal spirit. In sports, the concept of “we” is important, and the spirit of collectivism is indispensable for maintaining the North Korean regime. 

Considering the meaning of sports in North Korea, it is easy to understand that local people enjoy leisure sports in a limited way. 

North Koreans engage in sports activities only in a restricted way. For example, workers do workouts for 15 minutes in the morning and afternoon. The workouts include table tennis, a tug-of-war and stretching exercises. But it’s hard to say that they truly enjoy the routine. Rather, they are supposed to participate in the activities. 

In the North, sports for all or leisure sports are led by the state, not individuals. North Korea holds various athletic games on the second Sunday of every month, which is marked as a national sports day. 

In schools and enterprises, people gather in groups early in the morning or during a break to do gymnastics or exercises. North Korea encourages groups and regions to host their own athletic competitions to let many more people enjoy sports in their daily lives. North Korea publicizes Pilates, horseback riding, squash and pocket ball as popular public sports. 

This past spring, the “Springtime Competition for Bowling Fans” was held at the Golden Lane Bowling Alley in Pyongyang. 30 years ago, bowling was regarded in North Korea as decadent entertainment of the West. But has bowling joined the ranks of leisure sports now? 

I was surprised to find the report that a growing number of North Koreans go bowling. In fact, sports like bowling, baseball and golf had been banned in North Korea, which branded them as the U.S.-led, decadent sports. Apparently being aware of international criticism of that, North Korea seemed to open a bowling alley in downtown Pyongyang to show that people in the North also enjoy bowling. High-quality materials are needed to build a bowling alley. The materials are mostly luxury goods that North Korea is banned from importing. Nevertheless, the North built a bowling alley and shows videos of locals there to demonstrate to the outside world that its people also enjoy the sport in a normal way, just like those in other parts of the world. North Korea uses the bowling alley for that purpose and I think it’s too early to say that bowling became common in the country. 

North Korea opened the Golden Lane Bowling Alley in Pyongyang in 1994. There, the Pyongyang International Invitational Bowling Tournament took place in 2005. But it seems the bowling alley is only used by foreigners and certain classes of people. 

Among leisure sports, volleyball, basketball and table tennis are mentioned most frequently in North Korea’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper. 

While there are 70 to 80 sports internationally, North Korea operates some 30 sports by organizing football, volleyball and basketball organizations consisting of professional athletes. Speaking of judo and wrestling, North Korea fosters them as strategic sports with an aim of winning medals at international competitions, so they are not sports enjoyed by the general public. Popular public sports in North Korea include table tennis, football, basketball and volleyball. 

Popular sports in North Korea are similar to those in the South. Football is popular from spring to fall, while basketball takes center stage in winter. Football is especially popular with students, as they gather in small groups to play the sport after school. Therefore, sports groups fostered by the state mostly focus on football, volleyball and basketball. 

This year, North Korea has hosted athletic games one after another, including a table tennis event joined by some 800 people and a national volleyball competition for agricultural workers. 

North Korea has kept its borders closed for over three years. It is easy to imagine that movements of local residents have strictly been controlled. To respond proactively to increasing public complaints about the situation, the country seems to have held various sports events this year. For example, it resumed a sporting event representing each province—something like South Korea’s National Sports Festival. The North held multiple athletic events in the first half of this year, including those involving public officials of central government agencies and agricultural workers. 

It appears that the country can no longer control people under the pretext of COVID-19. People have a desire for sports activities and restrictions on them would only generate a negative effect. Being well aware of that, North Korea seems to be lifting the restrictions gradually through sporting events. 

North Korea has stressed group activities in sports, under the slogan of “building an athletic powerhouse.” Now, it has turned to sports yet again, in order to renew the depressed social mood due to the prolonged the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ll have to wait and see whether the country can win the heart and minds of the public by promoting sports. 

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