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'Sport can be the start of everything' - A new Pyongyang through the eyes of South Korea's AIPS Executive Committee member Hee Don Jung

North Korea’s military parade of this year was smaller and had no ICBM compared to the past editions. (photo Chosun Joongyang News agency)
by Hee Don Jung, AIPS Executive Committee Member

SEOUL, September 12, 2018 - There is an old saying in Korea, “When ten years pass, even the rivers and mountains change.” Maybe the old saying goes the same for North Korea as well.

I visited Pyeongyang, the capital city of North Korea, back in 2003 to report on a taekwondo sporting exchange event. Since then, after 15 years, when I saw the city once again with my own eyes, I thought I had arrived at a different place.

In fact, I was surprised before I actually landed in the ‘forbidden city’. At the airport in Beijing, I didn’t expect a large number of foreigners waiting in line to board the Koryo airline to Pyongyang. And lucky me, among the massive number of foreigners looking forward to their visit to North Korea, there was the famous French actor Gerard Depardieu! That got me thinking, North Korea really has changed a lot.

North Korean color Looking back 15 years ago, Pyeongyang International Airport was like an air force base, with the color grey all over the place. Now, it has changed to a state-of-the-art building that has three terminals. But this was nothing compared to the city. When I arrived at the city center, I had to rub my eyes for about few minutes. It was completely different. There were high-rise buildings with colorful paintings and people wore clothes that had colors other than black and white. Most of you might not believe me, but I actually even felt the vivid energy surrounding the city just like the other capital cities around the world.

After we checked in to the hotel, we had an opportunity to go out and look around the athletic facilities in Pyeongyang. On the street which is called ‘Youth Street’, there were various sporting venues nearby offering the possibility to enjoy sports activities such as football, table tennis and taekwondo. We entered an indoor ice rink, where I met figure skating duo Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik. Ryom, who is only 19 years old, and who said how grateful she still is for the support and hospitality that South Koreans provided during the PyeongChang Winter Olympics back in February. Although I cannot do a double axel jump like her, I thanked her back for welcoming our visit to Pyeongyang.

Sports media It was good fun receiving greetings from North Korean athletes. But the purpose of our visit was something else. We wanted to help the North Korean Sports Journalist Association. We wanted to provide support for them to organize their overall structure. Also, we wanted to help them to return to AIPS as soon as possible. North Korea left AIPS in 2000, after two years of their presence as a member nation. We think that now is the time for them to join the world, our world, again.

At present, there are some 150 sports journalists working in the regime. The most renowned newspaper, which is popular among young people, is published twice a week with stories from abroad such as European football and the NBA. I wanted to ask the teenagers: Why not try our AIPS magazine?

Statement of unity During our trip, we also watched the military parade and the group mass game performed by 100,000 participants, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the nation’s founding. With North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also present, this year’s founding day was much different from the past editions, considering that military parade was smaller and didn’t include their notorious ICBM (Inter Continental Ballistic Missile) in the show. Also, during the mass performance, a big screen showed a clip of Inter-Korean Summit that took place back in last April, with a strong message to support the peaceful relationship between South and North Korea. Everyone, including myself and the AIPS delegation, gave a standing ovation. I was mesmerized by the scene, it reminded me of the time in Indonesia, when the two Koreas came together in the name of sports.

Jakarta 2018 South and North Korea marched together at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Jakarta last month under the Korean Unification Flag, a white flag with the blue shape of the Korean Peninsula in the center. They also competed as one in three sports, canoeing, rowing and women's basketball, and produced four medals, including a gold from the women's dragon boat racing team in canoeing and a silver in women's basketball.

Just looking at the Asian Games shows that sports itself has unlimited power. Indeed, inter-Korean exchanges are forecast to gain more traction, as North Korea has been actively responding to plans to get together in the name of sports. I believe sports can be the start of everything, possibly the end as well. And the trip to Pyeongyang was an opportunity to check that future potential.

Politics through sport North Korean athletes and sports journalists who I met in Pyeongyang had a strong sense of pride and enthusiasm for sports. So if we help support the North Korean Sports Journalist Association to get back on the right track, we will see the peace of Korean Peninsula in the near future.

A few months ago, Chang Ung, a North Korean member of the IOC, said “Sports exchanges can prosper only when political issues are resolved.”

After what I have seen during the past few months, I think it is the other way around, political issues can prosper when sports exchanges are resolved.

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