North Korean leader Kim Jong Un greets the victorious women’s soccer team
at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. The North Korean women’s team
won the 2014 East Asian Football Federation championship. Image: Rodong Sinmun
North Korea has sent over 400 representatives to South Korea, including politicians, athletes, performers, Taekwondo demonstrators, and cheerleaders for the Pyeongyang Winter Olympic Games. Compared to the actual number of North Korean athletes participating in the games – 22 – this is a staggeringly large number. Pyongyang is using the opportunity to advance its domestic and international political aims.
Since coming to power, Kim Jong Un has renewed the country’s focus on sports and pledged to build the country into an athletic powerhouse. The regime has upgraded and expanded the number of sports facilities, and even built an exclusive apartment complex in Pyongyang for athletes.
“While Kim Jong Il used arts and culture to symbolize his achievements, Kim Jong Un has turned towards athletics for the same purpose,” said Kang Cheol Hwan, president of the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) and a North Korean defector. “After coming to power, he declared that North Korea would become a ‘powerful sporting nation.’ Significant investments followed, showing his interest in the area.”
A major meeting of the Politburo of the Worker’s Party Central Committee was held in November 2012. This marked the establishment of the National Athletics Guidance Committee, which was run by Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek, Choe Ryong Hae, and other central members of the ruling elite. NKSC President Kang contends this is further evidence supporting the assertion that Kim Jong Un strongly values athletic achievement.
Although the North Korean economy is reeling under targeted international sanctions, Kim Jong Un continues to pour resources into the training of the nation’s athletes and the development of facilities. North Korea analysts point to Kim Jong Un’s personal interest in sports as a major reason, as well as political motivations.
On a domestic level, Kim Jong Un is likely trying to earn affection from the people of North Korea. Since coming to power, Kim has built People’s Athletic Parks with diverse facilities including outdoor ice rinks, roller skating rinks, basketball courts, and volleyball courts.
Every time North Korea’s athletes achieves success on the world stage, Kim Jong Un asserts that the success is attributable to the leadership. In doing so, the regime hopes to inspire feelings of loyalty, patriotism and national unity.
Kim Jong Un personally visited Pyongyang Sunan International Airport to greet the victorious women’s soccer team following their tournament victory in 2014. Upon arrival, the athletes greeted the leader with teary eyes, with photos of the reception widely used in subsequent propaganda.
Asked about this dynamic, Maebong Unification Research Center Chief Nam Kwang Kyu said, “Athletic accomplishments are a good way to promote both national unity and Kim Jong Un’s leadership abilities. This explains why athletes are receiving such active encouragement.”
Kim Jong Un riding a ski lift in 2013 at the newly-completely Masikryong
Ski Resort. Image: Rodong Sinmun.
On an international level, sport presents an opportunity for the regime to repair its image and promote itself, while also opening up new channels to earn foreign currency.
The North Korean authorities’ encouragement and support of its soccer stars performing on the world stage in international competition is also closely related to the regime goals of scoring propaganda points and earning foreign cash. When the soccer stars gain recognition as successful athletes, the regime is afforded an opportunity to promote the supremacy of its system. The players are also able to earn money, with the regime receiving the lion’s share.
Sports also enable Kim Jong Un to lure foreigners into North Korea, so the authorities can promote the regime’s legitimacy. One example of this is the country’s Masikryong Ski Resort in Kangwon Province, which recently hosted a joint North-South training session.
But harsh realities impair the regime’s attempts to use the setting as a propaganda tool. International media learned that the regime exploited child labor to help construct the ski resort, undercutting the regime’s positive spin on the complex. The ski resort is also an avenue to earn foreign currency from visiting tourists.
In relation to this, President Kang added, “North Korea has decided that sports are a way to break through the isolation created by international sanctions. We see them being quite proactive in this regard.”