Hockey Engagement in North Korea

January 29, 2016 7:00 AM

For his next foray into North Korea sports engagement, Michael Spavor (below), a Canadian who was behind planning Dennis Rodman’ trips (numbers 2-4), is organizing a hockey tournament in Pyongyang from March 7-11 with the stated goal of building stronger Canada-DPRK relations. The event has purportedly received some interest from former NHL players, who are yet to be named, and interestingly the tournament is also being billed as a charity event to raise money for sports equipment for disabled North Korean athletes.

Kim Jong Un and Michael Spavor Epic Bromance photo
Spavor and Kim share epic bromance embrace. Source: Spavor's personal website

Canada has a very complicated relationship with North Korea that has in the last several years been on the freeze. Under the conservative Harper administration Ottawa downgraded its ties with Pyongyang to quasi-official status in 2010 amidst concerns over the North’s nuclear weapons program and human rights. And as we have covered in previous posts (here and here) Canada is still grappling with the detention and life-sentence of Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim. Under these circumstances the frosty relations have carried over to the new Trudeau administration. Trudeau has been understandably critical of Pyongyang’s detention of Lim and Pyongyang has in turn criticized the new prime minister and other Canadian officials for “recklessly spouting rubbish against the DPRK.” To secure the release of detained Americans it generally takes a former US President or very senior level current administration official to pay a visit to Pyongyang, but we’re not sure what kind of visit the North Koreans will demand from the Canadians in return for Lim’s release.

The international politics of sports is fascinating. Noland and Stahler wrote last year on the emerging prominence of Asian countries in international competitions. A few years ago Victor Cha released his book “Beyond the Final Score” on the role that the Beijing Olympics played on Chinese politics and diplomacy. And of course Nixon and Mao’s “ping-pong diplomacy” is widely touted as the testing-the-waters event that created momentum for the eventual opening of US-China relations. And despite sporadic one foot in-one foot out behavior surrounding North Korea’s participation in the competition, in October 2014 there were rare North-South high-level talks piggy-packed on the Incheon Asian Games.

To be clear, we don’t see this happening here. The lofty goal of improving bilateral ties through sport only works when governments want it to. This is why Rodman’s visits have led to nothing more than The Worm acquiring the status of being one of the few Americans to have ever met Kim Jong Un. We haven’t heard any official statements from Ottawa on the proposed hockey tournament but we’re guessing they will express sentiment somewhere between mild disinterest to annoyance.

Sports engagement activities with the DPRK, from Taekwondo competitions to international marathons, have been an amalgamation of cultural exchanges with lofty intentions and sports tourism—and perhaps in the case of the upcoming hockey tournament, sports engagement-cum-charity tourism. Or should we just consider this civil society engagement among counterparts? Unfortunately, since civil society is banned in North Korea, “counterparts” do not exist in the same sense, one of the reasons that such prima facie benign cultural exchange activities with the DPRK tend to be more controversial than they ought to be. Perhaps promoting the tournament as a charity event is an ex-ante damage control measure for Spavor. It’s hard to know but we do stand behind humanitarian engagement with North Korea and support providing assistance to those in need—if it really does go to those in need.

In the end, due to the lack of true civil society engagement and the fact that there is no apparent will on the government-to-government level to use such sports exchanges as a stepping stone for broader rapprochement, we don’t expect much to come from this. Nevertheless, after tempering expectations, in the big picture these kind of engagement activities are fairly innocuous.



Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute provides a thoughtful response to the above piece here:

I offer my reply here:

Rubin argues that sports engagement with North Korea is not as innocuous as I suggest. The point of my piece was not to argue that sports engagement with the DPRK is something to be encouraged but rather that it will ultimately be ineffective in improving North Korea’s ties with the West for two reasons: 1) There is no government-to-government will to use sports as a catalyst to improve relations and 2) because civil society is repressed to the point of non-existence in North Korea, engagement at the civil society level does not exist.

Rubin points out that “ping pong diplomacy” was the result of months of secret talks between the US and Chinese governments. This is exactly the point I would make, that there is no such movement in the case of North Korea so we can’t expect grand (or even marginal) improvements in relations. Rubin mentions that sports can (and has been) used as a tool of divisive nationalism instead of spreading cosmopolitan cheer. I would not argue that this hockey tournament will spread such cheer either.

But will Pyongyang be able to use this hockey tournament to further anti-Western sentiment and prove the superiority of the DPRK? Try as they may it’s hard to see how they will accomplish it. North Koreans have more outside information than ever before and, even on the margins, it’s hard to imagine that the Pyongyang regime will be able to use this event to shore up legitimacy internally. And regarding hard currency for the regime, will it be able to gain a sizable sum more than other prepackaged tours to the DPRK? Probably not, although I will likely never be privy to such information. I simply don’t see this proposed hockey tournament as a game changer.

And to the outside world this event will certainly be far from a PR coup for Pyongyang. When this story hits CNN, it will inevitably start with stock footage of goose-stepping soldiers, rockets launches, tales of human rights abuses, nuclear facilities, and the fact that there is a Canadian and American citizen currently being unjustly detained in North Korea. No policymaker, influencer, or member of the general public will think the regime any more benign due to press from the hockey tournament—if anything it will be the opposite. If Pyongyang thinks that international sports tourism will provide the legitimacy they seek or help to obfuscate their numerous human rights abuses and military provocations, they are wrong. The way for North Korea to end its perennial pariah state status is not through a sophisticated public diplomacy strategy but through a shift in policy, namely ceasing military provocations and nuclear weapons development, and respecting human rights norms. They know that but don’t want to do it.

Michael Rubin

Kent, Points taken on paragraph 1 and 2 of your response. As for hard currency, any additional hard currency can be put to uses that are far from innocuous. That the pre-packaged tours are less about cultural exchange and more, from Pyongyang's perspective, about the money we can agree upon. While we can downplay the cash involved, it is worth asking why Pyongyang thinks this is worth it given its paranoia about outside influences. Does it believe that the gains outweigh the risks? If the DPRK has made that calculation, then is it really 'innocuous'? What I worry about also is the slow erosion of will to stand up to rather than accommodate more broadly the DPRK. That's a pattern we've seen with the Western approach to other 'rogues' be they the PLO, Hamas, Iran, or Bashar al-Assad. (For the term 'rogue,' I use Tony Lake's definition from the Clinton administration). At any rate, good exchange and thanks for flogging the hockey issue. Will be curious to see what happens.

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