Traveling abroad as part of a North Korean sports delegation

Monday 15th December, 2014

Among the South Korean dramas broadcasted in 2003, there was one with a title that equates in English translation as “Star-crossed lovers”. The storyline of this drama follows the female protagonist, who visits South Korea as one among North Korea’s cheerleading squad, and strikes up a conversation with a South Korean reporter. In the course of their conversations, finding out that she has a father who is alive in the South, the pair sets out to find him together.

North Korean exile Chun Ji-won* says she watched the show shortly after arriving in South Korea. ‘It made me angry to watch because the story was entirely unrealistic. I felt, “South Korea lies to its people through television, exactly like North Korea!’” As a North Korean, she admitted she could not empathize at all with the portrayal of the North Korean protagonist’s circumstances.

What was it that a North Korean takes for granted but felt that non-North Koreans had missed, especially with regard to those allowed abroad, as in the case of the North Korean cheerleader depicted in the South Korean drama? Or the North Korean soccer team that played in South Korea earlier this year, or the hearing-impaired North Korean athletes that visited Sydney?

North Korean exile Kang Young-hee* said she heard about what it was like to visit South Korea while still in North Korea, through a cousin who had been among the DPRK cheerleading squad in 2002.

She watched the recent arrival of the DPRK women’s soccer team in South Korea and commented, ‘They probably couldn’t turn on their television upon arriving at their accommodation. I imagine these athletes felt disorientated when looking out of the bus window, being met with brightly lit and highly developed scenes.’

‘As with my cousin, they probably did not risk expressing wonder in one another’s presence. She said that because they were sharing accommodation, they had to remain alert about the possibility of one of them reporting on something back home. They had to make a point of having refused to watch television and in having kept the curtains of the hotel room closed.’

Kang said, ‘Before making the trip to South Korea, they had to undergo training in extra political-ideological classes. They practised on the points of caution – things they must not do when they arrived in South Chosun. They were ordered, of course, not to watch TV, and also that they could not engage in conversation of length with anyone, without first receiving explicit permission from a superior.’

‘The majority of the delegation that accompanies the athletes may have different names for their jobs, but are actually State Security agents. They come under the cover of sports officials, in order to have legitimate grounds to interfere with and monitor the athletes’ schedules on a round-the-clock basis,’ she said.

In response to the reporter asking whether the athletes weren’t young and curious women, and might not things have changed in the intervening years, recent North Korean exile Hwang Ji-young* said, ‘As soon as the athletes return to North Korea, they know they will be forced to pick on each other in the ensuing Party criticism sessions, for the misdeeds committed among them, so who would want to risk anything that got themselves in real trouble?’ (Note: All DPRK athletes must remain affiliated in the Party Committee system.)

‘Also, once they return home, they will be put under heightened supervision, be ideologically scrutinised, and be viewed with suspicion on the grounds that “that they will inevitably have been tainted by South Korean influence'”. Moreover, if they don’t fare well in the competition, the severity of ideological examination becomes exacerbated. Members of sports teams are objects to be deployed in the upkeep of the Party’s interests, they are merely assets that belong to the Party.’

Hwang said, ‘Even while in South Korea, they would have had to undergo political-ideological training on a daily basis. Surveillance officers always set corrective psychological boundaries in this way. And when they arrive back home, they will continue with their daily criticism sessions.’

North Korean exile Jun Joo-no said she felt in a conundrum about watching the women’s soccer match between South and North Korea. ‘I felt self-conscious about cheering for North Korean athletes since I was now in South Korea. If people saw me cheering for the North Koreans, South Koreans might mistakenly think that I supported the regime. I had to leave my home, and I may detest the system, but it doesn’t change how much I love my people.’

On their arrival in South Korea, the DPRK women’s soccer team showed a relaxed attitude, waving their hands to South Koreans from inside the bus that took them to their accommodation. But according to members of the North Korean diaspora we spoke to, this behaviour would not have really been spontaneous, because it would have been explicitly authorized by superiors beforehand. The North Korean people themselves are said to refer to those traveling abroad on such business as ‘puppets of the Party’, because they may only behave within the lines authorized, in advance, for each occasion.

Many other circumstances – inside and outside the country – have changed and are changing, but ideological-surveillance demands on the Party’s subjects cannot quite change with the times.


Reporting by Seo Young-seok.

Translation by volunteers.

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