Among the adjectives that can be used to describe The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), “dull” is not one that can be easily applied. Many stories that come from the DPRK’s state media are cloaked in mythical overtones (take for instance this official DPRK account of the events surrounding the death of former leader Kim Jong-il), while others seek legitimacy in the form of “official studies” done by its government. In 2011, for example, the DPRK released the results of a study that revealed its citizens were residing in the second happiest nation on earth, with China taking the top spot (one guess as to which country placed dead last, in 203rd slot).
It should then come as no surprise that when it comes to the history and triumphs involving North Korean athletics, that often the stories are no less colorful, but are filled with exploits of grandeur that require the rational minded in many cases to suspend disbelief during the course of their consumption (who can ever forget the legendary 38 under par round of 34 reportedly shot by Kim Jong-il in the 1990s, in his first ever round of golf?). What is perhaps most interesting about North Korean sport is that while filled with tales of the unreal, it also holds a number of real success stories, and could even be a useful tool in shedding light on the thought process of the country’s leadership.
The DPRK, unlike the Soviet Union, East Germany (and more recently Cuba, and China) never has fully developed a socialist state-backed sports machine. This is not to say that it is without successes on the world stage. In the 1966 World Cup, North Korea became the first Asian country to advance to the quarterfinal stage with its 1-0 victory over Italy, an upset so massive that it was captured in the 2002 documentary The Game of Their Lives. The legend of the DPRK squad could have reached epic proportions had it been able to hold on to its 3-0 lead over Portugal in the quarterfinals (it eventually went down 5-3). Six years later, Ri Ho-jun won the country its first Olympic gold medal, in the 50-meter rifle prone, setting a world record in the process. In recent years, North Korea has tasted international success in a number of fields, including weightlifting, where it won three gold medals each at the 2012 London Olympics, judo, table tennis, and freestyle wrestling. On the team level, the women’s national football team won the 2013 East Asian Cup Tournament, and are the favorites to win the 2014 Asian Cup Tournament to be held next month in Incheon, in South Korea.
Underlying these successes, however, are skeletons and oddities that are inexorably tied to North Korean sports.
In the late 1960s, North Korea successfully infiltrated the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), which soon after began sending spies disguised as taekwondo masters around the world. The operation culminated in the planned assassination of South Korean President Park Chung-hee during a visit to Canada. The plot was foiled by Canadian authorities, and the would-be assassins had to flee to North Korea.
A few years later the North Korean leadership was unsuccessful in its attempt to co-host the 1988 Olympic Games with Seoul, prompting a DPRK boycott of the Games. The 1986 blast in Seoul and the 1987 bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 were both attempts by North Korea to disrupt Seoul’s hosting of the games. And going back to the women’s football team? It can also be said with certainty that they will not be the winners of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Why? The entire team has been banned from the competition after five of its members failed doping tests prior to the 2011 tournament. The excuse given by North Korean officials was that the athletes were administered a traditional musk deer gland medicine following a lightning strike that injured the players in Pyongyang a month prior to the tournament.
There are signs however, that under its new sports-crazed leader Kim Jong-un, North Korea is poised to see athletics elevated to a higher stature than at any other time in its history. In 2012, Kim established the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission, which falls under the authority of the powerful National Defense Commission. The young leader, who reportedly spent much of his free time away at boarding school in Switzerland idolizing Michael Jordan on the basketball court, sought to raise the profile of basketball in his country by hosting five-time NBA champion and former Jordan teammate Dennis Rodman in 2013 on the first of his four visits to the country. In a January visit, Rodman returned with six former NBA players to stage an exhibition match against the DPRK men’s national team. Next week, another high-profile athletic exhibition will take place in Pyongyang, as Japanese Diet Member and former wrestler Antonio Inoki leads a mixed martial arts-pro wrestling event to the country with the stated goal of “bringing people together.”
The country’s progress in its athletic investment will be measured next month in South Korea during the Asian Games competition, where it plans to send a delegation of 273 to the Games, with athletes to compete in 14 sports during the two-week competition.
With all of the attention and resources being put into North Korea’s athletic programs, the question remains if there is a primary motivating factor behind it. While national pride could play a factor, the DPRK does not have the economic luxury to be allocating scarce resources for pride alone (although this fact has not tempered its military spending habits). Yang Song Ho, an assistant professor at Pyongyang’s Korea University of Physical Education said that the “ultimate goal of sports development [in the DPRK] was to ensure its citizens became, ‘comprehensively developed human beings possessed of sound body and sturdy willpower so that they can contribute to labor and national defense.’”
Whether it be national pride, increasing social productivity, a personal pet project of Kim Jong-un, or a combination of multiple factors, the development of sport is yet another aspect of North Korea likely to leave the experts guessing.
Brian Benedictus is a Washington D.C.-based foreign policy analyst specializing in East Asian security issues and is also an Asia-Pacific Desk analyst for Wikistrat. Brian blogs at warm-oolong-tea.