Dennis Rodman, the Unification Flag, and Eusébio’s Golden Boot: International Sport Diplomacy in North Korea

By Tom Fabian 

North Korea is arguably the most reclusive and enigmatic nation in the world.  Due to a historically strained relationship with the United States and the advent of Westernization, the “Hermit Kingdom” has cloistered itself off from the rest of the world as one of the last truly communist states.  With escalating rhetoric and tensions between American President Donald Trump and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un of late, many North Americans have become keenly aware of impending nuclear threat.  In times like these, national identity discourse in the international arena comes to the forefront.

Political and military posturing yields civic notions of “us” versus “them,” pitting the patriot against the “other.”  The ideology of nationalism, as defined by George Orwell, is “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige.”[1]  An ardent democratic socialist, Orwell’s hyperbolic commentary on the subject does propose an underlying query:  What are “we” fighting for and against whom?  With regard to North Korea, is the battle euphoric of the opposing Cold War ideologies (capitalism versus communism)?  Or is it totalitarianism versus the tenets of freedom?  Perhaps a more contemporary approach supposes isolationism versus globalization (or Americanization)?

It could be all of the above or none.  In truth, the threat of annihilation as a result of nuclear war seems a worthy adversary to stand against, yet little is known about the (supposed) aggressor.  Although the borders have been selectively opened in recent decades, not much is known about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that isn’t propagated by its propagandist media.  That said, the DPRK has a relatively short social history, and an even shorter sporting history.

A Brief History of North Korea

Between 1910 and 1945 the Korean peninsula was a Japanese colony.  After the Second World War, the northern and southern halves were occupied by Soviet and American forces, respectively.  Along with this geographic division, the two Cold War rivals also indoctrinated their respective political ideologies within the two halves.  The Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea) was founded on August 15, 1948, with the DPRK following suit three weeks later on September 9th.  On June 25, 1950, shortly after the two superpowers pulled out of the area, however, the North invaded the South in an attempt to reunify the peninsula thus beginning the Korean War.  After successive invasions on both sides of the 38th parallel, mass US bombing of North Korean industrial and agricultural infrastructure left 90% of the territory devastated, including 75% of the capital (Pyongyang), ultimately leading to the end of the war on July 27, 1953.  To note, although the two sides signed an armistice, a peace treaty was never realized and therefore the North and South are still technically at war with one another.

This utter destruction of North Korean infrastructure led to the adoption of a Soviet-style economic policy, the development of heavy industry and extensive labour mobilization, and the progressive evolution of a militaristic society.  After the Korean War, the North, essentially, had limited options for the revival of its society other than the spiked economic growth part and partial to military development.  As German sport sociologist Udo Merkel, whose work prominently features North Korean sport, suggested “the country’s conflict and lasting tensions with [the USA] is widely considered to be a defining element of the DPRK’s history, current existence and struggle for national autonomy and independence.”[2]  Based on the few options left to North Korean economic redevelopment and the direct American cause of this necessity, it may then be argued that the DPRK’s continued animosity and hostility toward the United States is rooted in the justified desire for revenge.


Bombing of Wonsan during Korean War (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

All that said, we still know very little about North Korean society and culture.  One of the best ways to understand a peoples is through the sports they play.  As such, “sport may be one of the few arenas in which the world can glimpse North Korean people and their culture.”[3]  Apart from diplomatic interchanges, the most common interface between the citizens of North Korea and the outside world occurs on the playing field.  Although, this was not the case in the early years of the People’s Republic.

After World War Two, until the early 1960s, leaders of the rejuvenating nation unsurprisingly adopted a Marxist-Stalinist approach to nationalism, which manifested in ideologies of anticolonialism, proletarian internationalism, and socialistic patriotism.  During this time, the focus was strictly internal, blotting out the rest of world in favor of cultivating a renewed sense of Korean identity.  It was not until the 1960s to 1980s that the “Eternal Leader,” Kim Il-sung, implemented his Juche philosophy, extolling the virtues of self-reliance in all areas of society – ideological, political, economic, militaristic, and diplomatic.  Much of the diplomatic relations dialogue during this time hinged on the acceptance of North Korea as a “self-reliant” and autonomous nation through the Olympic movement and international sport competitions.

North Korean Sport History

The first major international competition marked by North Korean participation was the 9th Winter Olympic Games (1964, Innsbruck), in which Han Pil-hwa won the bronze medal in the women’s 3000-meters speed skating event.  Although the DPRK has only registered one Winter Olympics medal since then, the Summer Games are another matter altogether.  Debuting at the 1972 Munich Olympics, North Korea has won medals at every Summer Olympics since – except those that it boycotted (1984 and 1988).  North Korea has more Summer Olympics gold medals than Mexico, Ireland, and India.  In fact, by weighing Olympic medals by a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which provides a more egalitarian ranking of nations, the DPRK ranks seventh all-time, following Jamaica, Bulgaria, Hungary, Grenada, Kenya, and the Czech Republic—an impressive ranking for a country isolated from the rest of the world politically, economically, and sportively.

This continued success on the international stage for a small, impoverished, communist nation is practically unheard of in modern sport.  After each successive Games, the North Korean government extols the communist and Korean values that have enabled its athletes to become world champions, while exalting the Eternal Leader’s grace and generosity imparted on his victorious sons and daughters.  Kim Il-sung’s son (Kim Jong-il) and grandson (Kim Jong-un) have continued their patriarch’s personality cult dynasty by, among other tactics, using Olympians who have reached the international stage as pawns of propaganda.

Another noteworthy sporting exchange, early in the Juche era, was the surprising achievement of the North Korean men’s soccer team at the 1966 FIFA World Cup in England.  During this tournament, the DPRK finished the pool stage with a record of 1-1-1 – losing to the Soviet Union, tying Chile, and defeating Italy by a score of 1-0 – thereby guaranteeing them a spot in the knock-out stage against a strong Portuguese side.  North Korea surprised their adversaries (and most of the football world) after beginning the quarter-final match with three goals in the first twenty-four minutes.  It took a four-goal effort from eventual Golden Boot winner (tournament’s top scorer), Eusébio, to turn the tide, as Portugal went on to win the game (5-3) and third-place in the World Cup.  If it were not for the heroics of the Mozambican prodigy – Eusébio was born in the Portuguese colony – the upstart North Koreans may have made (even greater) waves on the world stage.  Unfortunately, the open sporting exchanges that led to this remarkable World Cup success were never fostered and repeated, as the men’s national team has qualified only once since (2010), with three consecutive losses added to their record.  The totalitarian leadership therefore pursued other arenas in which to promulgate Korean communist ideals.

To continue in the soccer vein, the North Korean women’s team has had recent success. In more recent history, the national team qualified in every FIFA Women’s World Cup between 1999 and 2011.  If that is not impressive enough, the national side finished in the top three of nine (of the last eleven) AFC Women’s Asian Cups, going on to win the 2001 (Taiwan), 2003 (Thailand), and 2008 (Vietnam) tournaments.  These victories were utilized by the DPRK to promote the political merits of the communist state both at home and abroad.  The political discourse that ensued described the “sporting triumph[s] as an opportunity to connect North Korean socialist revolutionary zeal with the spirit of the nation.”[4]  All this occurred at a time of renewed cultural nationalism (post-1980s), which expounded the merits of sport as a cultural marker.  In fact, this type of nationalism went hand-in-hand with Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of “invented tradition,” or a society’s need to conceive cultural touchpoints so as to foster a shared history and identity.[5]


2012 Arirang Festival (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

A textbook example of an “invented tradition” is taekwondo in both Koreas.  Taekwondo was originally Japanese karate masquerading as an authentically Korean physical culture.  Karate was imported and diffused by imperial Japan and was embedded in Korean military training by the 1950s.  Through the efforts of South Korean General Choi Hong Hi (a North Korean defector), the term karate was replaced by the “Koreanized” taekwondo.  In addition to the name change, Choi established the Korean Taekwondo Association in 1959 and promoted it as an offshoot of taekkyon – an ancient Korea martial art, traced back to the Hwarang warriors of the ancient Silla dynasty (57 B.C.E.-935 C.E.) – even going so far as funding karate teachers willing to accept and promulgate his invented tradition.  Today, taekwondo is the national sport of both Koreas, and after his exile (for his political views) from the South, General Choi eventually returned to the North in 1979, becoming a national hero.  Choi’s return and efforts in the promotion of taekwondo were used as political fodder by the North Korean government as an example of the merits of their society over that of their southern neighbors.  Today, taekwondo is the most politically important sport in North Korea, and the “communist state perceives [it] as an element of national cultural heritage reflecting the history of the nation.”[6]

Although taekwondo has evolved into a political tool linking North Korea to its martial past, the Arirang exemplifies the nation’s isolationist attitude toward globalization.  As confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records, the Arirang is the world’s largest mass gymnastics spectacle.  Held first in 2002, this two-month long festival features a 10,000-participant choreographed performance in celebration of the Eternal Leader’s birthday and the cultural history of the nation.  The grand spectacle consists of six acts, including a prelude and finale, with topics ranging from the Sungun (army-first doctrine) to the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.  Steeped in political propaganda, nationalism is the primary theme of the festival, with the central message concentrated on anti-American imperialism.  In contrast to modern mega sporting events, the Arirang relies on the collectivity of the people, as opposed to intrinsic competition.  The diffusion of sport due to globalization has spread Western sporting practices to all corners of the Earth, including North Korea.  However, the Arirang is a unique cultural practice that embodies the ideology of communism and Juche philosophy.

Sport and Korean Reunification

Probably the most tangible efforts realized in North Korean sport diplomacy have been the sporting exchanges with their southern counterparts.  Between 1998 and 2008, the Sunshine Policy became the diplomatic foundation of South Korea’s foreign policy toward the North.  Implemented by President Kim Dae-jung (who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts), and continued by his successor Roh Moo-hyun, the Sunshine Policy followed in the footsteps of the previously applied Nordpolitik foreign policy, which promoted personal and humanitarian interchanges.  Thus, sport fit the diplomatic mold, used as a tool to “bring people together and . . .repeatedly remind the respective populations of their common cultural heritage and the political goal of reunification.”[7]

The first official open dialogue between the DPRK and the ROK occurred on August 12, 1971, conducted by the Red Cross for the purposes of humanitarian aid.  Between 1971 and 2013, of the 606 occasions for dialogue, fifty-four (or 9%) have been regarding socio-cultural aspects.[8]  Sport, which figured heavily in this category, derived the most attention among political critics because of its low diplomatic costs, or soft power.  A 2004 visual history collection entitled “The History of the Development of Inter-Korean Relations,” published by the Advisory Council on Democratic and Peaceful Unification, comprised of 400 photographs, of which thirty (7.5%) were sport-related, including the cover.[9]

In short, sport figured prominently in inter-Korean exchanges, identity formations, and reunification discourse.  Nothing exemplifies this idea of “peace via sport” better than the use of the Unification Flag.  A white flag with a blue outline of the Korean peninsula was first used to represent a joint Korean team in 1991 (during the Nordpolitik era) for the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, and the FIFA World Youth Championships in Lisbon.  Furthermore, the two nations marched under the Unification Flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Sydney, 2004 Athens, and 2006 Turin Olympics; as well as the 2002 Busan (South Korea), 2003 Aomori (Japan), and 2006 Doha (Qatar) Asian Games, and the 2003 Daegu (South Korea) Summer Universiade.  However, this was the extent of the symbolic unification marches, as more pressing foreign political matters were escalating.

Nearing the end of Roh’s presidency, much like the situation today, North Korean nuclear and missile testing overshadowed the goodwill initiatives of the South’s Sunshine Policy, renewing strained relations between the peninsular neighbors.  Therefore, inter-Korean talks to present a unified team at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were disrupted, and the two nations have not marched under one flag since.  Meanwhile, the upcoming “Pyeongchang [Winter Olympic] Games will offer no refuge from geopolitics and the specter of nuclear war,” with tensions mounting due to the latest crop of nuclear tests in North Korea, only about thirteen hours from the Olympic city.[10]  This is why the appearance of former NBA star Dennis Rodman, the unlikeliest of ambassadors, beside North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un is such a strange site for anyone and everyone.

Supposedly the two became friends in 2013, at the behest of Kim, a basketball fan who admired the Chicago Bulls rebounding expert.  Rodman has visited the dictator five times since, naively believing that his diplomatic “missions” would help relations between North Korea and the United States.  The Barack Obama administration, however, distanced themselves from the sideshow, claiming that “they distracted from the plight of North Korea’s impoverished population.”[11]  In essence, Rodman’s innocent intentions could very well be another form of North Korea’s sport diplomacy policies, distracting American scrutiny with one of their own pseudo celebrities.  Today, one of the only open exchanges of sport diplomacy in the DPRK is their annual amateur golf tournament, which has been run since 2011 and has featured an international array of victors – including Finnish, British, New Zealand, Japanese, German, and Polish champions.


Udo Merkel has argued that “sport events do not only provide a stage for political and ideological rivalries, but can also facilitate cooperation, increase understanding, bridge profound differences, break down stereotypes, and confine conflicts to the playing field rather than the battlefield.”[12]  That said, since the first nuclear tests on October 9, 2006, North Korean sport diplomacy has floundered.  Sport, as a politico-diplomatic tool, has an emphasis on soft power.  Nuclear arms testing, or “flexing military muscle,” is most definitely a hard power play.  It is difficult to justify peaceful, humanitarian foreign policies that strive for soft power tactics, like the Sunshine Policy or Nordpolitik, when hard power is being emanated from the same political entity with which relations are being fostered.  The key to the current tensions between North Korea and the United States lies in the diplomatic utility of sport.

Fabian5Probably the most successful example of sport applied in this manner is that of the influential “ping-pong diplomacy,” which cooled Sino-American relations in the early 1970s.  The impetus for this diplomatic opportunity occurred at the 1971 World Table Tennis Championships in Nagoya, Japan, after which Mao Zedong invited the American contingent to China, signaling the end of twenty-two years of mutual confrontation.  Carter and Sugden argue that “for a number of historically specific reasons, and because of the different balances of interest and asymmetric power relations, ‘ping pong’ diplomacy was able to help broker rapprochement between the United States and China.”[13]  In fact, the relationship with China at the time is very comparable to the contemporary situation with North Korea.  Both are communist states with long histories of tension with the United States; both offer sport as one of the few opportunities for diplomatic relations; and both have proven to be threats to Western culture and the onset of Americanization.  Since the 1970s, “sport diplomacy has become more important than ever before as part of foreign policy in which contacts between divided or ‘hostile’ nations can be started or renewed on an apparently informal basis.”[14]  If Trump and Kim want to lighten tensions between the two nations, then hard power plays are not the answer.  Instead, the soft power utilization of sport can be a conduit for peaceful and progressive discourse.  Perhaps the USA can learn from its history of salvaged Chinese relations and an attempt at “taekwondo diplomacy” is in order.

Tom Fabian is a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada.  He has worked at a variety of levels within professional and amateur sport and is a “sport agnostic” (loves all sport, without a favorite team).  His research focuses on the history of international university sport, as well as national sporting cultures.  Tom can be reached at or followed on Twitter at @bushleaguenorth.


[1] George Orwell, “The Sporting Spirit,” in Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus (eds.), The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume IV: In Front of Your Nose: 1945-1950 (London: The Camelot Press, 1968), 43.

[2] Udo Merkel, “The Politics of Sport and Identity in North Korea,” The International Journal of the History of Sport, vol. 31, no. 3 (2014), 382.

[3] Jung Woo Lee & Alan Bairner, “The Difficult Dialogue:  Communism, Nationalism, and Political Propaganda in North Korean Sport,” Journal or Sport and Social Issues, vol. 33, no. 4, (2009), 390.

[4] Ibid, 399.

[5] See Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[6] Ibid, 402.

[7] Udo Merkel, “The Politics of Sport Diplomacy and Reunification in Divided Korea: One Nation, Two Countries and Three Flags,” International Review for the Sociology of Sport, vol. 43, no. 3 (2008), 307.

[8] Giwoong Jung, “Sport as a catalyst for cooperation: Why sport dialogue between the two Koreas succeeds in some cases but not in others,” International Area Studies Review, vol. 16, no. 3 (2013), 308.

[9] Merkel, “Three Flags,” 297.

[10] Bryan Armen Graham, “Pyeongchang 2018: growing North Korea fears dim hopes for Olympic unity,” The Guardian (12 August 2017).

[11] Adam Kilgore, “Dennis Rodman’s strange, naïve fascination with North Korea,” Washington Post (23 June 2017).

[12] Merkel, “Three Flags,” 290.

[13] Thomas F. Carter & John Sugden, “The USA and Sporting Diplomacy: Comparing and Contrasting the Cases of Table Tennis with China and Baseball with Cuba in the 1970s,” International Relations, vol. 26, no. 1 (2011), 101.

[14] Merkel, “Three Flags,” 308.

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