The Canadian man who once helped bring basketball hall-of-famer Dennis Rodman to North Korea is now eyeing another project: a hockey tournament that could see former NHL players visit the secluded nation.
The tournament, scheduled for March 7-11 in Pyongyang, comes just after the North’s fourth nuclear test and nearly a month since it launched an Earth-exploration satellite that the U.S. says was a thinly veiled attempt to refine its ballistic missile technology.
Michael Spavor, organizer of the tournament and head of the nonprofit Paektu Cultural Exchange, which promotes greater engagement with the Pyongyang, said in an interview with The Japan Times that hockey “could be a unique way to build friendships and trust” between Canada and North Korea.
Spavor, who is based in China and has met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un multiple times on trips to the nation, first conceived of the Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition more than a decade ago.
The tournament will host some former and current professional players — including ex-NHLers. Spavor declined to identify the former professional players.
“But this is not just about bringing over a group of amateur and former NHL players … its a sports-development focused event,” Spavor said.
“In Canada, hockey is the national sport, and we thought that hockey could be an excellent nonpolitical medium to build trust and friendships that could help ease tension and mistrust due to other situations,” he said.
Teams consisting of expat players from the Asia region, including at least one from Tokyo and another from Beijing, are also expected to join the event, which includes a final exhibition match between the North Korean men’s national team and one comprised of international players.
The national team is training for April’s International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Mexico. After winning first place in the IIHF Division III World Championships last year, the men’s team has ascended to Division IIB. It is currently ranked 42nd internationally.
“Peaceful sport and cultural exchanges between countries and individuals, who are not on the best of terms, have taken place throughout history,” Spavor said. “In my experience, these events have the possibility of easing tensions but at the very least, the involved individuals or athletes can break down or dismiss their preconceived negative ideas about each other, and have an amazing time.”
Part of the proceeds and profits, he said, would go toward supporting efforts to develop the use of sports in the education of people with learning disabilities.
But Kent Boydston, an analyst focusing on the Korean Peninsula at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the goal of improving bilateral ties through sport only works when governments want it to.
“One of the challenges of engagement in North Korea is that the regime is resistant to truly open engagement and the negative effects that it fears would come if it moved in that direction,” said Boydston, a former Rosenthal Fellow at the Office of Korean Affairs with the U.S. State Department.
“These kind of sports engagement events are manufactured and tightly controlled,” he said. “This is not the normal kind of civil society engagement that would be possible in most parts of the world.”
North Korea has hosted several high-profile sporting events over the last several years, including Rodman’s trips in 2013 and 2014 and Japanese lawmaker Kanji “Antonio” Inoki’s pro-wrestling exhibition in 2014. Bob “The Beast” Sapp, who briefly played pro football in the United States before switching to mixed martial arts and gaining celebrity status in Japan, also joined.
Pyongyang has drawn global condemnation over its recent nuclear and rocket tests. Japan slapped the North with sanctions last week, and the U.S. Congress has sent a bill with tough measures to President Barack Obama for his signature. The United Nations is expected to follow suit soon.
The North has also faced growing calls for justice over alleged Nazi-style atrocities committed by the country’s leadership.
In a report released Monday, a U.N. expert on human rights in North Korea asked the United Nations to officially notify North Korea’s Kim that he may be investigated for crimes against humanity.
While the nuclear and rocket tests have garnered the glut of attention in recent weeks, Pyongyang has also faced criticism for its arrest of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, 21, over an alleged “hostile act.” Its sentencing of South Korean-born Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim to life in prison has also chilled ties with Ottawa.
Both the U.S. and Canadian governments warn about travel to North Korea.
“While Pastor Lim’s and Mr. Warmbier’s situations are regrettable, it would be inappropriate for me to get involved or comment on these serious consular issues which need to be dealt with officially between governments,” Spavor said in a statement on his website, adding that his group does provide a briefing addressing local rules before entering the country.
It remains unclear if the sanctions and global outcry will affect tourism or cultural and sporting exchanges.