Pyongyang on Ice – How to organise an international tournament during an international incident
Arranging an international hockey tournament in North Korea is one thing. Doing it directly after a hydrogen bomb test and a satellite launch is another. To be honest, it almost didn’t happen.
The seed is sown in Pyongyang: 2005
The original idea started ten years ago in Pyongyang. At the time, I was living there and managing a small development NGO. A close Canadian friend of mine, also working in Pyongyang, was driving through the city and saw a hockey poster in a shop window. He drove over to my compound and said “I need you to translate something. I think they might play hockey here – maybe we can watch a game. How cool would that be?”
After reading the poster, we found out that a local hockey tournament would take place the following week. On the day of the event, not knowing if we would even be allowed to attend, we showed up at the Pyongyang Ice Skating Rink – and were promptly stopped at the entrance. They asked us who we were and what we were doing there. After a brief explanation, they waved us in to enjoy the game. After chatting with a few of the roughly 100 spectators, we found out they were mostly family, friends – and a group of young figure skaters waiting to use the ice. We had a lovely afternoon cheering for the teams, making poor attempts at a Mexican Wave and sharing foreign snacks and soju with the people watching. That’s when the idea to one day bring international hockey to Pyongyang was born.
Dennis Rodman Delegations: 2013 – 2014
In 2013, Paektu Cultural Exchange hosted and organized the former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman on three visits to the DPRK. These culminated into a friendship basketball game between the top DPRK basketball players and former pro NBA basketball players. For all three visits, Dennis organized and ran workshops and training sessions. During this time, I had many opportunities to speak directly in Korean with Marshall Kim Jong Un. Over a few discussions, we talked about ideas and plans to conduct similar friendly sports exchanges, mainly involving hockey and skiing. He mentioned that these types of cultural exchanges can be a great way to improve relations and friendship between countries.
By the end of 2015, we had a lot of interest from former NHL players and other professionals involved in hockey – players, trainers, coaches and teams. We finally got official permission in early January 2016, which only gave us a few months to get everything prepared, organized and to get the word out. We had aimed high and requested to play a series of exhibition hockey games, and conduct joint training and hockey workshops with the DPRK Men’s National Team. We knew it would be challenging, as there had been similar exhibition games in the past, but there had never been an event on this level.
We proposed a round robin tournament between our international teams and the DPRK team. On the final day there would be two championship matches. The first game would determine the winner between the DPRK Men’s National Team and the international team. For the finale, we would change the teams so that North Korean and International were on the same side, and play in the spirit of friendship.
Challenges and the Political Climate
The timing of this event could not have been much worse. The current political issues and rising tensions on the Korean peninsula were occurring at the same time we were launching our official press release and conducting interviews with the media. The DPRK has not exactly become a top travel destination this year. Despite these challenges, we were still able to bring together an amazing group of individuals, eager to take part in a special event and engage with the people of the DPRK outside the usual tourism activities. Our final roster of 20 included Canadians, Americans, Swiss and French.
Canadian and American Government Travel Warnings
A week prior to our departure to Pyongyang, I received two government requests. One message came from the U.S. Department of State, the other from Global Affairs Canada. In addition to our detailed pre-trip briefing on safety and security, I was instructed to pass on the official governments information to all participants and players from those countries. The message from the Canadian government courteously advised us to be aware of the new UN Security Council sanctions against the DPRK. The representative also requested that I make sure that the Canadian participants read and understood the government travel warnings concerning the DPRK.
The exceptionally polite but slightly odd email from the U.S. Department of State in Washington requested me advise the American participants to not only be aware of the American travel warnings, but also for me to read out the following message from the American government:
“If you insist on going into North Korea despite the advice in our Travel Warning, ‘Behave like a boy scout troop visiting someone’s grandmother for tea. Be unfailingly polite and respectful. Behavior that would be dismissed as hijinks and shenanigans here can land you in jail there. Wait until you leave to have your rowdy post-game celebration”.
With great pleasure, I made sure to share this message word-for-word with all of our international participants. At first I thought this was hilarious, but then realized that this was actually really good advice – and enthusiastically referred to throughout the trip.
Arrival in Pyongyang – Workshops and Training
On our first morning in Pyongyang, we left for the ice rink. The players took a few photos in front of the venue before being shown their team changing room, equipped showers and a locker for each player. The Korean players were in practice jerseys warming up on the ice, and I was introduced to the coaches of the Korean team. One of my biggest concerns was that just days before our departure, our international goalie fell ill and cancelled. I had immediately called Pyongyang to explain the situation and ask if we could borrow one of their goalies for the tournament.
They graciously presented us with their other national goalie, who was immediately welcomed on to the international team. I suggested that the Korean coaches begin the hockey training in the DPRK style, and our former pro players would lead the second half of the exercises. They told me “We want your team to conduct all the training today”. I think the Korean coaches were skeptical of our players and coaching abilities, and I’m sure they were wondering if they had anything to learn or gain by training and playing with us. The Korean team were training and preparing to compete in the Ice Hockey World Championships in April, so they were quite serious about this event.
The Korean coaches were impressed with the training that our coaches conducted, and requested they continue for the rest of the training sessions over the next 3 days. They realized that the Korean players weren’t communicating on the ice as much as they should, and we started to do a few exercises which would get the Korean players yelling to each other and making more noise on the ice. After the first training session there was sweat and smiles all round. All the players were thrilled. None of the international players had ever met a DPR Korean before, and mostly only ever seen negative images and media coverage.
A few of the Korean players told me that this was a special experience for them. Normally they play foreign teams at international competition, and there’s no chance to be anything but competitors. This experience was quite different and gave them opportunity to chat, joke around and work together as one team.