By: Andrew Petro (Twitter @AndrewPetro15)
North Korea has been making headlines recently because of the release of The Interview. This political satire depicts two journalists and their bumbling attempts to assassinate Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. So far, the film has done nothing but worsen our already nonexistent diplomatic relations with this hermit nation. While many criticize the film, there is some truth behind all the bad jokes.
VICE, a news outlet that is known for investigating places that do not always get investigated, recently made a visit to Pyongyang, North Korea. VICE founder, Shane Smith, fully aware of Kim Jong-un’s inclination towards the game of basketball, purposed a “good-will” game with North Korea’s national team and, much to his surprise, they accepted.
The game, however, came at a time when diplomatic relations between the US and North Korea were at an all time low. In December 2012, North Korea launched a satellite into earth’s orbit and was in the midst of testing its nuclear weapons. Naturally, this had the international community on edge. “So, in the midst of heightened tensions and heated rhetoric, we headed to Pyongyang to see if we could actually engage with the North Koreans through the cultural vehicle of basketball,” said Smith. The group traveling included VICE correspondent, Ryan Duffy, joined by former Chicago Bulls basketball player, Dennis Rodman, as well as 3 members from the Harlem Globetrotters. The 30-minute documentary of their experience is titled, “When VICE met Kim Jong-un.”
The group’s experience began somewhat abruptly. To Duffy’s dismay, a lot of control is lost when you enter North Korea. “You’re told where to go, what to do, and most importantly, what to film,” said Duffy. Government officials were constantly directing them at almost every stage.
As the group entered their hotel, they were immediately greeted with a huge banner that translates to, “Success of the 3rd underground test!” While they initially thought it was in honor of their visit, it was instead put there for the nuclear scientists staying at the same hotel. This obvious display of North Korean power would be a recurring theme throughout their stay.
A major aspect of their visit, besides basketball, included a state-sanction tour of the country. The first stop, of many, was the Sun Palace, a mausoleum honoring the leaders of North Korea. What makes this nation so different is how the citizens view their leaders; they are not just viewed as political figures, but gods. For instance, the first leader of North Korea, Kim Il Sung, is still the president of the country despite dying over 20 years ago.
Since VICE was shooting a documentary, North Korea’s tour was undoubtedly tailored to make their country seem better than it really is. “They were going to show us how great the quality of life in North Korea really was,” said Duffy. The next stop on the list was North Korea’s version of Sea World. At the beginning of the event, the trainers made a special announcement. They were proud to remind the crowd, as well as their American visitors, of North Korea’s recent nuclear tests. Given their location, doesn’t this seem like an odd thing to announce?
Duffy and the group were then ushered to their own, personal shopping spree. They were given the chance to see what a mall was like in North Korea, or were they? “The mall was clearly a show piece designed to project an abundance of delicacies in a country that doesn’t even have enough food to feed its people,” said Duffy. Everything would have seemed somewhat normal here if it weren’t for the fact that they were the only ones in the store and they weren’t allowed to actually buy anything.
At Kim Il Sung University and Grand People’s Study House VICE was yet again reminded of North Korea’s missile technology. Aside from the demonstration of power, the tour attempted to portray North Korea’s openness to the outside world. The group was brought into what seemed to be a normal computer lab; there was nothing normal about it. The filled room was completely silent and the students were blankly staring at computers, not doing anything. “There is no typing, no mouse clicking, nothing,” said Duffy. There was, however, one person who looked like he knew what he was doing. Conveniently, that was the person they were directed to talk with. Duffy summed up the odd situation perfectly when he said:
“Considering North Korea’s reputation for complete and total suppression of information, this stop was clearly designed to convince us that they had access to the internet, just like the rest of the world, which we knew wasn’t true.”
Finally, the day of the basketball game arrived. The crowded stadium roared with cheers as their young leader, Kim Jong-un, entered the premise. Teams were eventually divided so that each side had both Americans and Koreans. Ultimately, since no overtime was allowed, the gamed ended in a tie. Dennis Rodman made a concluding speech where he not only addressed the crowd, but also their leader. Rodman said:
“I’m sorry that my country and your country are not on good terms, but for me and the country, you’re a friend for life,” then, addressing Kim Jong Un, said “Sir, thank you, you’re a friend for life.”
VICE ended their night and trip with an unexpected dinner celebration joined by none other than Kim Jong-un himself. “There we were, face-to-face, with Kim Jong-un for a dinner celebration and with that, we were somehow the first Americans to meet North Korea’s new leader,” said Duffy.
While Duffy and VICE realize that their efforts in North Korea will not lead to the immediate end of its nuclear program, labor camps, or even anti-American rhetoric, their trip was not by any means pointless. “Through basketball, we managed to bridge the divide between our countries, open a dialog, and make a connection with real people, if only for a moment,” said Duffy. VICE made a huge step in the right direction. Its trip proved that both sides were able to set aside their differences and engage in an activity that transcends culture. This instance of sports diplomacy gave our countries a jumping-off point; it gave us a chance to build our relationships when all other tactics had failed. Engaging through sports can truly make a difference. At a time when we need to improve our relationship with North Korea, we shouldn’t forget when VICE was able to surpass all expectations and have an open conversation with Kim Jong-un.