Sports Diplomacy in US-North Korean Relations

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These two people would meet for the first time when Dennis Rodman made a trip to North Korea with the Harlem Globetrotters while being filmed by a Vice documentary crew. The two reportedly sat next to each other during a game played between the Globetrotters and North Koreans and began talking passionately about basketball, as well as the game being played before them. Since then, Rodman has been allowed to go back at least four more times to North Korea. Later on, Rodman would continue trying to set up another similar basketball game played between North Koreans and whomever preferably the US or South Korea. These attempts would prove to be too hard for Rodman to organize, however, because of unfortunate circumstances and the sudden intervention of politics influencing what is usually meant to be a more civil interaction or cultural exchange. Yet, Dennis Rodman is still trying to organize more sports events between the two countries to help normalize relations. The latest example would be Rodman's attempt at organizing another basketball game in the US territory of Guam during 2017, played between Americans and North Koreans. As Rodman explained, this was meant to help normalize relations between the two countries after the two began exchanging harsh words. In response to all of this, Rodman would be allowed to arrive at Singapore during the latest summit held between the US and North Korea. Another relevant influence on Kim Jong-un's life and policies would be Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sue chef that has served under Kim Jong-un's family since his grandfather's, Kim Il-sung's reign. At first, Fujimoto claims that he felt a sort of disdain from Kim Jong-un as a child.

Kenji claims that this was likely because of his Japanese heritage, but Kim's attitude changed after he left for Switzerland and returned to North Korea to assume power. Apparently Fujimoto had fled to Japan during Kim's absence in Switzerland and feared for his life ever since. As a result, when he was ordered to return by Kim Jong-un, Fujimoto was initially scared. Instead he would feel relief after being forgiven by Kim for his actions. Kenji would even give some high praise for the differences made in some of Kim Jong-un's governmental policies. For example, Fujimoto stated how during Kim Il-sung's government he could have never tolerated the idea of opening up their republic to the modern world. Kim Jong-un, however, was stated to have patiently listened and nodded along. What all of this implies is that the desire for North Korea to open its borders to the world and normalize relations through the use of sports or other peaceful means has a likelihood to result in further efforts towards political rapprochement. Haffey, Sean M. Chung Guam Hwang of North Korea and Yunjong Won of South Korea were joint flag bearers during the opening ceremony. In response to this, Christopher Green and Troy Stangarone both present evidence of Kim Jong-un's attempts at using sports strategy with South Korea. They also note, however, what challenges still lay between successful reunification and globalization.

For instance, during the Winter Olympics of 2018, Kim Jong-un's younger sister was sent to South Korea as part of a delegation to PyeongChang. This action later resulted in both countries marching under one flag during the Olympic opening. When concerning the limits on depending solely on sports diplomacy, it is argued by Troy Stangarone that just because the goal of sports diplomacy is to promote peace on the Korean Peninsula and to help build inter-Korean ties, it is still unlikely to continue helping towards changing perspectives on both sides of the DMZ unless the relationship itself is being reshaped. In that case, if the two Koreas truly wish to find a way at repairing their foreign relations in a fundamental way, sports diplomacy could help at finding potential pathways towards reunification. As Stangarone emphasizes, however, to do so there will need to be more equality moving forward in the development of joint teams. As to what these other methods could be, historical or educational documentaries prove to work well at introducing foreign cultures to other people Implementing Sports Diplomacy with other Strategies Three different sources can be used to help prove Stangarone's point; all depict the necessary requirements for normalizing relations. One action makes all three of these diplomatic strategies more effective too, which is their implementation of sports with their documentaries.

The earliest example would come from the 1990s when CBS's show, 60 Minutes, attempted to film an episode in North Korea. It was expressed by the former CBS president, Eric Ober, to North Korean ambassador, Kim Jong-su, that CBS executives were aware of the inadequate and one-sided coverage presenting the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In order to rectify this, it was intended by CBS News to open a new era of US and North Korean relations by having their television team visit North Korea at their earliest convenience. By doing this, according to Eric Ober, making such a trip could help visualize to the rest of the world where they have misunderstood North Korea and its current policies. Furthermore, this could also give the North Korean government a chance to show Americans their own perspective. Approximately a year later, Kim Jong-su would send back a reply, stating that the North Korean government had decided to let them film. Now that they had a chance, 60 Minutes would record at places like the Pyongyang Gold Lane Bowling Alley, an amusement park, and a recreational park on Sundays so that Americans could see what North Koreans do for recreation. Despite the positive influences from this event, it would take about a decade later until a new attempt was made at sending a documentary crew into North Korea. As a result, this had left much of the same political tensions in need of reparation again, since North Korea was under a new ruler now. This was why the implementation of sports diplomacy in the Vice documentary proved to be an important strategy towards approaching the new leader, Kim Jong-un, since sports was already the preferred method of Kim Jong-un for promoting his foreign policy and government. Americans were also able to watch North Koreans play professional sports now, which is important since it can help them empathize better with the North Koreans, knowing that they too enjoy the same activities.

This documentary would then be followed by Michael Palin's entrance into North Korea, and his program helps to build upon the previous concerns noted. As an example, one scene stands out when Palin steps out of a subway. Michael and his camera crew find articles posted on a column in the public area detailing the meeting that was had between North and South Korean leaders. Related to this, Palin would later interview a propaganda artist for the North Korean government. The picture that he was currently working on was also related to the summit between both Korean leaders, and it was supposed to say that things can be sorted out through speech and dialogue between the North and South. Even more interesting, viewers learn through this documentary that Kim Jong-un supposedly intends to turn North Korea into a sports superpower with table-tennis as one of the focuses. Although it becomes apparent that North Koreans also share a fondness for volleyball and basketball. To summarize, it was moments like these and the unexpected chance to appear for political rapprochement that would have Palin give a thoughtful analysis on the current situation, stating that even if it may seem like a slow process it is important that everyone be able to keep each other's trust now. This idea may appear more relevant now too given the current state between the US and North Korea. It is also worth noting the progress being taken after the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore and the Kim-Moon summit in Pyongyang when the leaders were able to sign documents at both events signaling a willingness to normalize relations. Yet, there have already been similar attempts made in the past between the US, North Korea, and South Korea that failed due to a lack of commitment on the long-run for all sides.

Examples would include the US and North Korea almost going to war in 1993 when they continued to defy orders stating that they began denuclearization and established a military presence. This is why it is important for each country to show that they have true intentions towards political rapprochement. There can be some evidence of this found in recent news articles, such as the North and South Korean governments' attempts at re-working and connecting their railway systems to help with better transportation and trade. It is explained best by Philip W. Yun: The problem is that the US tends to misread the situation with North Korea not in terms of their intent, but their reaction to coercion and threats of regime change. If people should apply the experience and research though to North Korea's situation, it may become more clear how this type of foreign policy can only lead the US to even more undesirable choices of accepting North Korea as a permanent nuclear weapons state or risk going to war again in East Asia. Even more telling is Yun's comparisons with Richard Nixon's prediction on how further relations with China should play out during the Cold War after they had succeeded at developing nuclear weapons as well. In summary, Nixon states that when also looking in the long-view, the US could not bear to leave China outside of the family of nations forever, but instead be left in the dust to dwell on their fantasies, fuel their hate, and threaten their neighbors. It would simply be inhumane to leave six million people alone to live in angry isolation.


In conclusion, the situations being played out between the US and North Korea are indeed comparable with the US and China during the Cold War. Both relationships had grown antagonized over the dispute of ideology, national sovereignty, and territory that had only resulted in growing military tensions. However, these two scenarios are not completely similar so each country relies on its own educated analysis to determine the best route towards normalizing relations. If that should be the case with North Korea, then it would be important for the US to keep in mind the North Koreans pertain to a strong sense of ideology, sovereignty, and reunification with South Korea that can only be solved peacefully if the two halves of Korea are able to normalize relations peacefully and without further intervention. Additionally, if this should be started with the process of sports diplomacy and further social interactions between North Korea and the rest of the world, one can assume that the idea of peaceful reunification between North and South Korea and North Korea's entrance into the global economy has a little more clarity to it. In the future, history will tell if either Zhou Enlai or Michal Kobierecki were correct when concerning the fate of North Korea.

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Sports Diplomacy in US-North Korean Relations. (2019, Dec 04). Retrieved December 9, 2023 , from

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