Thae Yong Ho: N. Korea must normalize its sports diplomacy

Former North Korean diplomat calls on the Kim Jong Un regime to stop using sports for its own domestic political ends

North Korea’s most prominent newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, has reported almost everyday that North Korea is becoming a global power in sports thanks to the leadership of Kim Jong Un. 

The October 27 edition of Rodong Sinmun reported about North Korean sports teams’ accomplishments on the international stage, including that DPRK women footballers took first place in the 7th Military World Games and that DPRK weightlifters Yang Tae-bong and Kim Un-song won gold medals.

Rodong Sinmun’s October 26 edition also reported that North Korea’s women’s football team beat the South Korean team 2:0 and advanced into the finals.

It is surprising to see North Korea reporting the results of sporting competitions. This is because they did not report anything about the FIFA World Cup qualifying match between North and South Korea, which took place in Pyongyang on October 15. 

It is also amazing to see North Korean competitors winning in international competitions after training in such a poor country as North Korea.


When Rodong Sinmun reported the successes of its women’s soccer team, however, it said that the DPRK had won in a match against the Chinese team while the country had “defeated” the South Korean team. 

North Korea’s state-run media always talks about the “Korean race,” “national self-reliance,” and “rejecting foreign influence”; but when they reported on a sporting match between the two Koreas, they described it as if the two sides had met on a battlefield. 

So, if North Korea “beats the enemy” then they make a big deal about it and praise their players, but if the North Korean team gets “defeated” by the “enemy” then North Korean media doesn’t even report on the game. 

North Korea politicizes sporting matches between South and North Korea and this had led the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to cancel the AFC Cup. The event was supposed to take place next month in Pyongyang, but will now be held in Shanghai, China. The AFC stated that the rationale for switching the AFC venue was based on “fostering development and promotion of football and ensure the game is available to all.”


Last October 15, North Korea received criticism for hosting “the world’s strangest football derby” for the Qatar World Cup qualifiers without a live broadcast and in a stadium with no soccer fans. A member of South Korea’s national team that played in the match even said that “It’s a huge achievement just to return safely” from North Korea. Through the match, the world came to know that North Koreans through of the game more as a fight on a battlefield than a game.  

North Korea’s attempt to promote its regime through sports backfired because of its lack of common sense. This attitude on the part of its leaders is diminishing North Korea’s standing on the international stage. North Korea needs to quickly abandon its use of sports to idolize its supreme leader and enter the world of normal sports diplomacy.

*Translated by Yongmin Lee

Views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.

Thae Yong Ho’s most recent column on North Korea’s one-man rule and its problems can  be found here