North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be using sports as a core tool of statecraft to ease public discontent over poverty and suppression, and improve the isolated state’s image overseas, experts say.
According to data from Seoul’s Unification Ministry, Kim made at least 25 public appearances at major sports facilities and gatherings until recently ― a four-fold increase from six recorded last year.
The impoverished state has also pushed to build a host of sports facilities such as a ski resort, horse-riding clubs, a roller skating rink and a bowling alley, all of which are luxuries for its starving citizens.
|North Korean leader Kim Jong-un talks with officials at a ski resort under construction at the Masik Pass on Nov. 2. (Yonhap News)|
“Sports are more effective and less costly than anything else to strengthen unity among citizens and boost their national pride,” said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies affiliated with Seoul National University.
“Through sports, Kim, after all, seeks to refurbish his image into one that cares about the well-being of his people, and further consolidates his leadership, and creates an impression of a prospering North Korea.”
After Kim took the helm of the North upon his father Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011, hopes had emerged that he might move toward openness and inject vitality into the debilitated economy.
But things have not improved with the unpredictable leadership adhering to military adventurism. Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February and its series of long-range rocket tests put the country deeper into international isolation.
Citizens’ hopes for change have faded and turned into disappointment toward the leader, thought to be in his late 20s. Aware of this, Kim has focused on promoting sports, particularly soccer, weightlifting and wrestling, analysts said.
One of Pyongyang’s most high-profile projects to promote sports is the construction of a ski resort at the Masik Pass in the North Korean side of Gangwon Province. Kim inspected the site several times, most recently on Nov. 2.
In a display of his keen interest in sports, the North established a national sports guidance commission last year and put Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s powerful uncle and vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, at its helm.
With the country’s support for sports, the North won some 360 medals from about 60 international sports competitions between January and October, according to the North’s state media.
Kim has also sought to raise young, competent athletes. He has recently invited a soccer coach from overseas and reportedly sent dozens of students to Italy and Spain for soccer training this month.
This year, the North also made a flurry of efforts to host international sporting events despite the economy deteriorating under a series of global sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.
In September alone, the North hosted three events ― weightlifting and table tennis competitions, and an international bicycle festival. In the Asia-wide weightlifting championship, some 15 countries including South Korea and China participated.
Ahn Chan-il, the director of the World North Korea Research Center, said Kim seeks to project a dynamic image of a young leader through his push to encourage sports activities.
“For him, sports is a propaganda tool to enhance the country’s image, which has been mostly about military tension, nuclear armament, isolation and poverty, from outsiders’ perspectives,” he said.
“On a domestic level, Kim seeks to mitigate the growing frustration over poverty by offering things for entertainment. He also wants to show to the outside world that the North is as civilized and culturally advanced as other nations.”
Pointing to a recent rise in sports activities in the reclusive state, some analysts said the North might use something similar to the so-called “3S policy” of former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan.
The general-turned-president who rose to power in a 1979 military coup employed “sports, sex and screen” to deflect public anger at the government for its undemocratic rule.
Some say Kim’s version uses “sports, science and speed.”
Kim has paid attention to space science with what he claims to be satellite launches, but outsiders claim were missile tests. He also stresses speed in the construction of the Masik ski resort. “Speed” has now become a slogan for the country’s economic reconstruction.
Kim’s efforts to shore up public support may not succeed after all, analysts said, unless the leader makes any efforts to improve ties with the outside world, particularly South Korea and the U.S, who used to be crucial sources of economic assistance.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org