As the news of Kim Jong Il's death spread, the big story was, of course, what next? North Korea's extreme political isolation, combined with a nuclear program that has much of the world in fear, is certainly a dangerous recipe.
But North Koreans have managed to forge a tenuous bridge to the Western world, and that path is paved by sports. From soccer to wrestling and ice hockey to gymnastics, there's something about a little harmless competition that has opened up the communist nation to global events like the Olympics and World Cup. After all, the Ever-Victorious Iron-Willed Commander was a sports nut known for his astonishing athletic prowess -- if you choose to believe his fantastical golfing tales. At the very least, we know he was a big Michael Jordan fan. And that's no small thing, considering it's proof that he let at least a little Western culture into his heart.
"Sports has been a connecting factor for North Korea and the rest of the world," says Korean-born Allen Wagner, a former copy editor of the Korea Joong Daily in Seoul who now works at the National Bureau of Asian Research in Seattle. "Sports seems to be able to bring together even the most hated rivals in some form of friendly competition. In past Olympics, the South and North Korean teams marched in the opening ceremony under one flag, even though they competed separately. And I think competing against North Koreans gives athletes from different countries the opportunity to see them in a different light, away from the usual umbrella of nuclear issues, a tyrant leader and poverty."
Sports in North Korea are a blend of traditional and Western. Kite flying, Taekwondo, and Korean wrestling (called ssyrum (씨름) are found in both North and South Korea. The country has adopted ice hockey, wrestling, soccer and boxing. But like in any other nation or culture, sports has its dark sides in North Korea.
Citizens are forced to participate in the Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance Arirang, often called the Mass Games or just Arirang. The ornate spectacle of athletics honors the birth date of Kim il-sung, former prime minister and president.
"Young men and women practice all year just for the event, making it a pretty big deal at least for the citizens of Pyongyang, where it is held, and where the privileged live," says Wagner.
So while in free nations, sports is an escape, it can take the form of a duty in North Korea. It's for the leadership, not for the refreshment of the individual soul.
"Propaganda plays almost 100 percent in North Korea's sports culture," says Suk Hi Kim, editor of the North Korean Review and senior professor of international finance at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Soccer, considered the most popular sport in North Korea, has been shadowed in controversy. Though they haven't been proven, reports surfaced during the 2010 World Cup that the North Korean government sent players to labor camps for losing to Portugal. Four players went missing during the 2010 match against Brazil. And in 2011, five female soccer players tested positive for steroids. Then there was the bizarre story about North Korea paying Chinese actors to parade as North Korean World Cup fans.
"Fans -- assuming there are genuine fans -- are rarely, if ever, allowed to travel overseas to watch their national teams play," says Wagner, who cites that issue as the dividing factor between North Korea and the rest of the sports world.
For many Americans, idolizing athletes is a rite of passage. But in North Korea, even the rise to celebrity athlete status is controlled by the government.
"North Korean children are not in a position to worship athletes as much as Americans," Kim says. "The government selects a few promising young athletes to train full time."
After all, if your late president is setting golfing records and coaching your World Cup team with an invisible mobile phone, who needs sports celebrities? Professor Kim says it's all part of the plan to keep the ruling family at the very top.
"You should not be surprised at these sorts of stories," he says. "North Korea will do everything to make Kim's family a god for all practical purposes."
And yet now that the Dear Leader is gone, sports brings a faint hope. Suk is not completely optimistic about the unifying nature of sports when it comes to North Korea, but says other than food aid and diplomatic talks aimed at resolving concerns over the country's nuclear program, perhaps sports is the only other way North Korea interacts with the world.
The bridge to the West is more than a little shaky, but at the dawn of an Olympic year, it's still intact.
-- Karie Meltzer can be reached at email@example.com.
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