North Korea is playing real games and sports in the world’s most secretive authoritarian state, just a little differently from the rest of the world
USA Today | By Martin Rogers
War games, whether in the form of military strategizing or parading nuclear weaponry as a show of force, are not really games at all, which explains why the escalating tension surrounding North Korea has so many in the United States on edge.
Yet they are also playing real games and sports in the world’s most secretive authoritarian state, just a little differently from what we’re used to in the rest of the world.
Whether it is the North Korean soccer coach being banished to a labor camp, according to multiple news media outlets, or the state newspaper touting details of former leader Kim Jong-il shooting five holes-in-one in his first-ever game of golf, the regime has long used sports as a means to solidify its power.
Sometimes it is farcical, sometimes frightening and almost always downright bizarre.
A few years back, long before President Trump started getting twitchy about North Korea’s military strength and intent, there was an internet spoof video. It claimed to show the North Korean government had duped its population into believing it had won soccer’s 2014 FIFA World Cup, despite the team having failed to qualify for the tournament and having lost all three games on its most recent appearance in 2010.
It was all quite amusing and could best be described as fake news about fake news, about a country often accused of fake news. Twenty-first century problems, indeed.
Ludicrous as it was, it was also potentially plausible, given that the North Korean regime’s relationship with the truth is far from monogamous, and sports has routinely crossed over into its web of fantasy.
Levity aside, if you’re a North Korean athlete, you’d better be a darn good one. North Korea competes at many international sporting events, including the Rio Olympics last year. Once they’re there, they’re not allowed to say much, and we don’t hear much about them again.
At Rio, female gymnast Hong Un-jong warmed hearts and prompted a Twitter storm by posing for a selfie with a competitor from South Korea. Heartbreakingly, female weightlifter Kim Kuk-Hyang cut a distraught figure on the podium after claiming silver, having been one of the athletes expected to win gold by controversial leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son and successor. Kim Jong-un predicted a haul of 12 medals and at least five golds from Rio. The team returned home with seven medals, two of which were gold.
Kim Hyeong-soo, a former employee of the wonderfully yet cryptically named Longevity Institute, told reporters after defecting two years ago that underperforming athletes face punishment.
“If they had a gold medal of course they would receive a huge benefit like a car, a new apartment in Pyongyang and extra rice,” he said. “But if they have a bad result the athletes and the coach can actually be sent for hard labor for several months.”
A United Nations special commission report in 2014 said that political prison camps are still widely used in North Korea.
North and South Korea are still politically, physically (by a wall and demilitarized zone) and ideologically separated, yet the women’s hockey teams of both countries met in a world championship qualifying game this month. South Korea won 3-0 after its rivals from the North lowered their heads for the opposing anthem. The players posed for a joint photograph, but otherwise did not appear to interact.
The nations rarely meet in sports, due largely to the political complications. The 2010 soccer World Cup draw was arranged so that the two teams could not play each other before the semifinals.
Needless to say, that didn’t transpire, with North Korea performing admirably in a 2-1 defeat to Brazil before falling apart, losing 7-0 to Portugal and 3-0 to Ivory Coast.
The team was cheered on by a group of mysterious fans during play in South Africa. It turned out this “fans volunteer army” was mostly made up of Chinese, having bought tickets through a Chinese sports PR agency in conjunction with the North Korean sports ministry.
The three defeats came despite apparent tactical interventions from Kim Jong-il himself, with Kim Jong-hun, the coach who was later allegedly banished to a labor camp, saying that the Great Leader, Father of the People and Sun of the Communist Future had been communicating with him via “invisible telephone,” a contraption that has so far proved beyond the geniuses at Apple.
According to South Korean news media outlets, the players were subjected to lengthy and humiliating interrogations from government officials when they returned home, sparking concern from FIFA, soccer’s world governing body.
Things also went south for the 2011 Women’s World Cup team, which lost 2-0 to the United States in the opening game and failed to win any of its three matches. The delightful official explanation for the struggles was that several players had been struck by lightning, requiring them to be treated with traditional deer musk medicine, which unwittingly caused five of them to test positive for steroids.
If Kong Jong-un has unrealistically lofty expectations for his nation’s athletes, it is easy to see why he has set the bar so high. After all, he apparently grew up surrounded by sporting excellence, personified in the form of his dad, Kim Jong-il.
Some remember the elder Kim as an obsessive despot that played a game of nuclear chicken with the West, deepened his nation’s isolation and swaggered around luxury palaces while many of his citizens starved.
Yet, according to the treasure trove of factual nuggets that is the North Korean state media, the current leader’s father was also a sensational athlete. What a moment it must have been in 1994 when Kim Jong-il graced Pyongyang’s 7,700-yard championship course and belted a wondrous round of 38 for 18 holes – a mere 31-under par that included five spectacular holes in one.
Soon after he turned his hand to bowling and was just as proficient, firing off a perfect game of 300 on his first trip to the lanes.
Maybe it really did happen and it surely would have been great to be there to see it. Maybe it was a fake story, like so many others seem to be. It was widely speculated last week that a military parade in Pyongyang purporting to show a powerful arsenal of nuclear weapons was not as mighty it claimed to be either.
But when it comes to war games, not just games, you really want to be sure.
This article is originally published in USA Today
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