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article imageNot so jolly hockey sticks for North Korean sports

By Sebastien BERGER, with Neil SANDS in Wellington (AFP)     Aug 3, 2017 in Sports

When North Korea's ice hockey team arrived in Auckland for an international tournament carrying battered wooden sticks, organisers stepped in to provide high-tech carbon fibre equipment. But they had to hand them back before going home -- taking them would have violated United Nations sanctions.

Exports of luxury goods to the North are prohibited as part of United Nations sanctions over its banned nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, in a move intended to hit Pyongyang's elites.

But North Korea –- which last week carried out its second successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile that analysts say could reach much of the mainland United States -- remains bullish about its sporting potential.

Sports ministry official Jong Kwang-Rim was in Auckland for the April tournament and protested over the hockey sticks, to no avail.

He blamed the debacle on "hostile US forces" -– Pyongyang always attributes United Nations actions against it to Washington's doing -- and said North Korea could not be cowed.

Its weapons achievements, he said, "show how great our people is and more importantly, how we have the greatest leader".

The decision on the hockey sticks stemmed from a UN Security Council resolution passed in March last year that expanded the definition of banned luxury goods to include in "recreational sports equipment".

Children playing football at a school for orphans on the outskirts of Pyongyang  North Korea
Children playing football at a school for orphans on the outskirts of Pyongyang, North Korea

"They were not allowed to take the sticks out of New Zealand," NZ Ice Hockey Federation general secretary Jonathan Albright, who was also the tournament director, told AFP.

Albright said he understood authorities also seized chocolate and apples from the North Koreans before they departed, adding teams were told not to swap badges or pennants with them because they would be confiscated too.

"I know it's a little thing, a little pin, but apparently the security or customs officials at the airport were quite strict and vigilant."

But Jong remained defiant, insisting: "Even though the US sanctions tried to challenge us, we were able to develop our sports sector.

"Recently, the development of our nuclear power and the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile raised us to a higher position in the world," he added. "We will also dominate the US in the sports sector in the next few years."

- 1966 and all that -

For most of its existence, North Korea has had a limited presence on the global sporting stage.

Perhaps its biggest success was in 1966, when its footballers beat Italy to reach the World Cup quarter-finals -- a run featured in the documentary "The Game of Their Lives".

Its women's football side is strong, winning the Women's Asian Cup three times and currently ranked 10th in the world.

A trainer teaches girls weightlifting at the Kigwancha Sports Team gym in Pyongyang  North Korea
A trainer teaches girls weightlifting at the Kigwancha Sports Team gym in Pyongyang, North Korea

At the Rio Olympics North Korea took home two golds, in weightlifting and gymnastics -- and when two gymnasts from North and South posed together for a selfie, it became a viral sensation.

Pyongyang has sought to raise its sporting profile in recent years, hosting a Women's Asian Cup qualifying group in April.

Jong was speaking at a table tennis gymnasium in the capital, where many of the country's top players were training for this week's Pyongyang Open.

But apart from a couple of Iranians, all the players at the Challenge-ranked International Table Tennis Federation event were from North Korea.

And the Junior World Judo Championships, due to be held in the country in October, were in April switched to Croatia over security concerns.

- Tears of pride -

Whether Pyongyang's athletes will participate at next year's Winter Olympics, to be held in South Korea's Pyeongchang, just across the Demilitarized Zone that divides the peninsula, remains unclear.

None of its athletes have so far reached the required standards and the North, which boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, has not yet decided whether to do the same again.

Students stretch following an under-14 training session at the Pyongyang International Football Scho...
Students stretch following an under-14 training session at the Pyongyang International Football School in North Korea

Senior North Korean National Olympic Committee Yun Yong-Bok told AFP: "We plan to make a decision after we train more and are qualified."

Unlike the summer Olympics, where all IOC members can send one athlete regardless of ability, all Winter Games participants must qualify on merit, partly due to the inherent dangers in snow and ice sports.

So far no North Koreans have done so, and their last chance lies with two pairs skaters competing at September's Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany.

Olympic organisers and the South Korean government want to ensure Northerners are present for a "peace Olympics", even as tensions rise over Pyongyang's weapons ambitions, with wild cards and unified teams suggested as potential routes in. But Yun would not be drawn on either prospect.

A former captain of the national football team, he wore the armband for 12 of his 13 appearances in the 1970s, scoring eight goals, before a calf injury cut short his career.

"The first thing that I felt when I saw our national flag and heard our national anthem at an international competition was gratitude to the Party for training me and letting me take part in the competition," he told AFP.

"Not only me but all athletes taking part in international competitions will shed tears as they look at the national flag with the thought of our country, the great leader and the people."

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