By Kristy Koehler, November 5 2019—
It’s been said that “sport is a great equalizer that can build bridges, transcend borders and cultures and render even the fiercest conflicts temporarily irrelevant.” That’s certainly what Isaac Yeung and the Inertia Network hope to do by facilitating the Pyongyang Cup.
Founded in October 2017 by three Vancouver-based friends, Inertia Network is a unique travel company, organizing experiences in the most remote and inaccessible parts of the world. Inertia Network’s “mission is to facilitate genuine connection between people, wildlife, the planet and ourselves.”
In May 2020, the company is bringing hockey players to North Korea to play in the first international mixed team hockey tournament ever held in the oft-newsmaking nation. Four teams, made up of men and women from North Korea and North America, will compete for the Pyongyang Cup — and hopefully learn about each other, and themselves, in the process.
Matt Reichel, one of the founders of Inertia Network has been to North Korea more than 50 times. He’s also produced a documentary film about hockey in North Korea, set to première at the Whistler Film Festival in December, called Closing the Gap.
Many are shocked to learn that North Korea has a hockey team. The sport has been played in the country since the 1950s, explains Reichel, when the Chinese and Soviet soldiers brought it with them during the Korean War.
In the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, five members of the North Korean women’s hockey team crossed the 38th Parallel and played with their southern neighbours under a unified flag.
Yeung hopes to continue those diplomatic efforts.
“It’s Canadian diplomacy at its finest,” he said. “We’re trying to connect regular people through sport. What is the common ground between us and how do we communicate and cooperate? We’re trying to get people who come from very different cultures to understand each other.”
Reichel says the country has changed profoundly in the last decade — there are more cars, more construction cranes, traffic lights and people starting their own businesses. It’s still a far cry from the freedoms enjoyed by their southern neighbours, but it’s something.
Repression is certainly an issue in the country — it’s no secret. But, says Yeung, while very little has been changed in that outer shell, what’s happening inside the country domestically, the way that people are operating and surviving and making their living, has changed dramatically.
The North Korean government is fully aware of the tournament. Yeung says it’s been a trust-building project between his team and the North Korean Ministry of Sport.
“It took a long time to build this bridge with them,” he said. “After working four years on the documentary and really getting to know the hockey community in North Korea, I see this as the continuation of that project.”
While a third of the program is strictly hockey — practicing, dryland training, working together to try and win the cup — the rest of the program is devoted to tourism and cultural exchange.
“The idea behind having all these components is that tourism allows people to understand where we’re at — walking around Pyongyang, taking local transportation,” said Yeung. “It allows people to interact with the city. The exchange is a combination of working with your North Korean teammates on ice but also off ice doing things like going bowling with them, having meals with them singing karaoke with them, but also visiting universities and meeting with local students.”
The North Korean hockey players that participants will meet aren’t tour guides, nor are they government officials. They’re mostly people from the countryside, and Yeung stresses that the interactions are completely unscripted.
“A lot of them don’t have families that have disposable incomes, so for them to get to engage on an intimate level with foreigners is awesome — and pretty much unheard of,” he said.
The film crew was given unprecedented access to the North Korean Ice Hockey Association, and while they were accompanied by their North Korean organizers, they were never censored.
“North Korea is a scary place because the media says a lot about it,” said Yeung. “The reality is that a lot of those people in the country are just regular folk.”
He said that, while there is political interest in painting the regime in a certain light, there’s a better way to go about achieving progress in the country.
“We think that, instead of deploying sanctions and hating these ‘other’ people, the way to progress forward is to find common ground. We think that sport is one of the best ways of doing this,” he said. “The exchange goes both ways — its not just about changing foreigners perspectives of North Koreans but helping change common North Korean people’s perspectives of foreigners.”
As far as the skill level needed to play in the tournament, Yeung says anyone who is a decent recreational league player should be just fine. He describes the North Korean men’s team as “really good beer league players.” The women, on the other hand, are great.
“Having worked with the men’s and women’s team for the last few years, the women’s team is far superior in almost every way imaginable,” he said. “They’re better on the ice together, they’re receptive to coaching and real leaders on the ice.”
The tournament will take place from May 2–11, 2020. Early bird pricing is available for the first 20 registrants and costs $2,500 USD. Afterward, the price increases to $2,900. The fee includes transportation, accommodation, food, an entry visa, train tickets from China to Pyongyang, team jerseys and activity fees. Each team will have a North Korean coach, a Canadian team manager and two translators.
Those looking to spectate can also register and take advantage of Inertia Network’s intimate knowledge of North Korea. The program for spectators will involve more cultural activities but will end with taking in the last two games — hopefully alongside plenty of North Korean locals as the games are open to the public.
Hockey equipment and plane tickets to and from China are not included. Neither, says Yeung, is beer. There are several breweries in Pyongyang and the hockey players love their beer — despite the many differences, it’s clear some things are the same all over the world.
For more information or to register, visit Inertia Network’s website.