North Korea is arguably the most reviled nation in the world by most world powers and the U.N. But something that rivals the isolated country’s number of sanctions and denouncements from world leaders, is its burgeoning, and increasingly mysterious athleticism. Until recent years, very little was known about the culture of the country. However, now that Kim Jong-un is at the government’s helm, he is transforming the image of the country in subtle, almost unnoticeable ways.
VICE, an alternative media institution, went to the country in 2013 with famed NBA star Dennis Rodman and his Harlem Globe Trotters team. The trip was designed as a way to bridge our culture with theirs. The documentary episode, released through VICE’s program on HBO, charted the crew’s and Rodman’s journey through the sprawling emptiness of the city, glamorous malls, and most notably, a basketball game between Rodman’s team and the opposing team. The event was viewed by Kim Jong-un himself, where he was met with riotous applause and adoration. Though it could be viewed to many as a public relations stunt on behalf of Jong-un, the atmosphere among the teams was amiable. In fact, the two teams even switched several opposing team mates, mixing the teams up for sport.
What proceeded over the next year and a half were three more trips to North Korea for Mr. Rodman, where a bizarre friendship between him and Kim Jong-un blossomed. Although the stance many countries take on the country has not changed – as the country still continues performing missile practices against its southern counterpart and Japan as its target, as well nuclear testing aimed to make Washington D.C. nervous – the view granted to the public across the world is unprecedented. When Kim Jong-il dominated the country, there was very little, if any, access into how cultural norms operated.
It is curious, however, that the north seems to be embracing sports and athletics with such open arms. It is possible that Kim Jong-un’s education in Switzerland plays a hand in the slow burn of globalization occurring in the country today. Not much has been known about the passions of the young man, aside from his mysterious predilections for the athletics; which continues to make strides in history to this day.
This week, Pyongyang announced that they would be opening their marathon program to foreign runners for the first time ever. The marathon event is slated to begin with 200 tourist runners on April 15, the birthday of Kim Il Sung. (Eerily coinciding with the run-up to the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing.)
In addition to the first-ever international marathon, North Korea will also play host to established tourist zones, such as an in-progress ski resort for people all around the world to visit and patronize. The power vacuum of athletic activities that seem to be overtaking the country’s public image emerge ahead of a violent backdrop. Many citizens remain starving to the point of emaciation and death in their everyday lives. People who attempt to defect either fail to make a new life in another country, or die trying. Families who are deemed dissenters to the government are torn apart and sent to labor camps, and many American citizens and activists are also kept as political hostages. The government has shown no mercy to even major players in the inner rankings of Kim Jong-un’s regime, as his uncle was ousted and executed in light of a plot to overthrow his nephew. As the U.N., in recent months, releases reports of crimes against humanity not seen on such a scale since Nazi-era Europe, Kim Jon-un has created a bizarre dichotomy between violence and sports, making North Korea and its passion for athleticism increasingly mysterious.
Commentary by Tyler Collins
New York Times