While international relations with North Korea have been chilly in recent months, there is an athlete who was literally on ice and physically facing people from the secluded country.
Aaron Geddes of Canada was one of the 14 amateur ice hockey players who recently played against the North Korean men's national ice hockey team at a friendly tournament called the Pyongyang International Friendship Ice Hockey Exhibition (PIFIHE). The event, held at Pyongyang Ice Rink in Pyongyang from March 7-11, was organized by Howe International Consulting Group and Canadian Michael Spavor, who's also known for arranging former NBA star Dennis Rodman's visit to North Korea in the past.
Geddes, who has been living and working in South Korea since 2004 as an English teacher, described his first-time visit to North Korea as a "unique experience."
"I was surprised in positive way because it's not that bad," Geddes said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency last Friday. "I would say it's not paradise, but it's also not terrible."
He visited at a time of escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea's nuclear test in January and long-range rocket launch last month. Geddes said he talked with North Koreans there, but everyone just looked calm and people were just busy with their normal lives.
The 34-year-old, who hails from Bracebridge, Ontario, added that North Koreans were not afraid of having conversations with the foreigners, as children on the streets even said "Hi" in English to them first. However, they looked at him in surprise when he spoke back to them in Korean.
"I know we were there in a tense time," he said. "But we weren't there to talk about politics, but to play hockey."
Geddes, however, said that mounting tensions may have pushed other people to drop their plans to visit North Korea. Originally, three teams with some 70 people from Beijing, Tokyo and Canada were to visit Pyongyang for the ice hockey event. But in the end, there was only a single team of 17 people, all from Western countries, according to Geddes.
Spavor, who promoted the event through his non-profit social enterprise Paektu Cultural Exchange (PCE), previously said there could be former National Hockey League (NHL) players, but it turned out that there was no professional player on the trip. However, there were two former National Collegiate Athletic Association
(NCAA) Division 1 players, conducting joint training and hockey workshops, Geddes said Geddes, who has been playing ice hockey in South Korea with the amateur Titans club in the Korea Independent Hockey League, said he heard about the event in January and didn't hesitate to sign up. He was one of the two expat players in South Korea to go to the PIFIHE.
"I like playing ice hockey and I knew it's going to be a pretty interesting experience in my life," he said. "You know there was a tour program to Kaesong and Mount Kumgang from South Korea in the past, but after I signed up, it got canceled. So I always had a thought to visit North Korea."
Geddes took a 24-hour train trip from Beijing to get to Pyongyang. His group had an immigration checkup in Sinuiju, a border city in North Pyongan Province neighboring the Chinese city of Dandong, but North Korean officers weren't as strict as the
group had expected. Geddes said they just had a "quick look" at their belongings and welcomed them in a friendly manner.
Even after arriving at the Koryo Hotel in Pyongyang, Geddes said his group didn't feel like they were being watched.
Apparently, they were able to get online, and even Facebook was accessible, though Geddes said he enjoyed time without the Internet.
"We were just basically told 'behave yourself'," he said. "You know you are going to be watched, but you don't feel like you are being watched."
Geddes said what probably made the group a little uncomfortable was the tight daily schedule, as they woke up at 6 a.m. and then had a daily trip to popular sightseeing locations before playing the ice hockey game in the evening.
Geddes said that this hectic schedule influenced their game against the North Korea men's national ice hockey team. The team of foreign amateur ice hockey players lost the opening game 6-5 in overtime, and was crushed 10-5 in the next game before tying 5-5 in their third encounter. For the final match, two sides mixed their players.
"We can't really exactly comment about their level because we are not professional players," Geddes said. "We didn't even have a goalie so we had to borrow a backup goalie from the North Korean team to play games."
But Geddes said that North Koreans put their best efforts into their game as they needed to prepare for an upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournament. North Korea, ranked 42nd in the world, is scheduled to compete at the 2016 IIHF World Championship Division II next month in Mexico City where they will
face Australia, New Zealand, Bulgaria, Israel and host Mexico.
He said that the North Koreans seemed to play ice hockey in a good environment, with new and clean-looking equipment, using Canadian-brand gear like Bauer. Geddes was also impressed by the Pyongyang Ice Rink.
"The ice was best we've played on (in an Asian country)," he said. "I heard that the rink was built more than 30 years ago, but it still looked good."
Although the 6,000-seat rink wasn't packed during the friendly tournament, Geddes said that North Koreans, including the women's national team, visited the stadium to watch their national team's performance. At one point, he believes there were more than 400 spectators with lots of kids.
But what really surprised Geddes was that the North Koreans knew about the NHL, the top-tier professional hockey league for the United States and Canada. Geddes said one North Korean player approached him and asked him in English who was the NHL player on his team.
"They were very aware of the NHL and they said they watch the games," he said. "They knew about teams and players, which I think they study from the NHL."
Geddes said at least on ice, everybody was united as sportsmen. There were no politics, animosity or curiosity that people usually have about North Koreans.
"When we were at the ice rink, we were just relaxing," he said.
"After all, these are all just normal people who play sports." Geddes heard that the organizers are trying to have the ice hockey event regularly and bring more teams to North Korea, as it offers a good practice opportunities to the national team. Geddes
said he wanted to be part of it again, but with better conditions.
"I would like to go again, but next time I would like to go with a better team," he said with a laugh. "People have their own political beliefs and ways of life, but they still enjoy doing the same things like eating, drinking, singing and of course, playing ice hockey. Hopefully someday, everybody can visit there."