Hockey Engagement in North Korea
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.
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.