Skating through the hermit kingdom

Derek van Pelt (far right) with teammates on ice n Pyongyang.

Most people don’t place a visit to North Korea high on their bucket list, but not Derek van Pelt. Indeed, he was so fascinated by his recent trip to the Hermit Kingdom, where he played hockey with a group of mostly Canadians against the North Korean national team, that he would like to go back. 

Recalling how the event transpired, Derek says, “When I first received the email about playing hockey in North Korea, I was excited, but it came out of the blue, from no one I knew, and I couldn’t get any concrete information about the organization (Howe International Consulting) or the people behind it. Even, after I paid the deposit, when I showed up in China to meet them, I wasn’t sure anyone was going to be there.”

But they were, and it all worked out.

The trip was organized by two longtime friends; Gordon Israel from France and Scott Howe from BC – it was the second time the two had organized such a venture. There were twenty players on the squad: the three Americans were not legally permitted to travel over land and they were forced to fly via Air Koryo – the North Korean national airline. The rest endured a 24-hr train journey from Beijing (Derek did know one player, Craig Anderson, who he had met years ago playing for Bangkok’s Flying Farangs).

Derek compared the train experience to what might be expected on a second-class sleeper in Thailand. He chose the train because he wanted to see the sights and was a little wary of the North Korean aviation safety record, though he later checked and was told that the Beijing-Pyongyang route was much safer than the Air Koryo domestic flights because the safety inspections were done by the Chinese aviation authorities.

The train stopped at the Chinese/North Korea border for several hours each way, and a team of North Korean officials came on board and went through almost everything; looking through their phones, cameras and especially any printed material they had (they went through every page). Returning, those same officials checked through all the photos they took and checked out all their souvenirs to make sure they weren’t taking anything out they weren’t supposed to. During these border checkpoints, passengers were not allowed to leave the train.

Statue in front of the ice rink in Pyongyang.

“The train ride was long, but the group immediately gelled as one of the Quebecers took it on himself to start getting a feel for everyone’s level of play and putting lines together, recalls Derek. “Everyone spent a lot of time looking out the window as the North Korean countryside passed them by. Notably, they noticed almost no mechanization – few cars, trucks or tractors. Everyone was walking or riding a bicycle and even work animals were rare to see. It seemed as though everything was done by sheer manpower.”

Arriving in Pyongyang, the team went directly to the ice rink for a friendly with the North Korea team where they were soundly thrashed 15-2. Although the visiting team had never played together and had just come off a 24-hour train journey, organizers were surprised at how much the Koreans had improved since the previous year’s trip. Derek’s team then played the North Korean squad a few more times over the next few days and also spent some time doing drills with the North Korean women’s team as well. The final match was with mixed teams and everyone appreciated the chance to skate together and finish in a friendly fashion.

Derek’s team after a practice session on the ice in North Korea.

The group was constantly watched by a group of guides that made sure nobody stepped too far out of line. The hotel the group stayed at, the Yanggakdo International Hotel, is the main hotel where foreigners visiting are housed. It is on an island, and the team’s minders made it crystal clear that nobody was permitted to leave the island without an escort. Even an unsupervised morning jog in the parking lot was discouraged. The hotel had several bars, a bowling alley, ping pong tables, snooker and a swimming pool and even some cable TV channels. This is the same hotel where Otto Warmbier tried to steal a propaganda poster from before his arrest.

If anyone on the team wanted to buy something, they had to do so in a government-operated store, they couldn’t engage in commerce with the average North Korean on the street and currency exchange into North Korean currency was prohibited. All purchases had to be made with USD, Euros or Chinese Yuan.

Derek notes the players had no phone service/or Internet during their time in North Korea. “It really was a different feeling not being able to just check things on the internet or call someone to arrange something,” he said.

Reflecting on the trip

Derek’s North Korea guide during the trip.

After the trip, several people reached out to Derek with questions or to chastise him for “supporting” the Democratic People’s Republic and it became clear that the nation inflamed the passions of many.

Before visiting, Derek gave a lot of thought to moral issues and the pros and cons of visiting the country. He spoke with several South Korean friends and others both in the Canadian government and the private sector to get a feel for what the right thing to do was before making the decision to go.

Surprisingly, he says he left the country with more questions than answers, and in reflecting on his time in the country still isn’t sure that his decision was the right one, or the wrong one.

“The experience we were given was stage managed extensively and we were only allowed to see and experience what was given to us. It would be a mistake for me to believe, or to suggest to you, that my experience was indicative of the experience of millions of residents of the DPRK,” Derek says.

“The North Korean situation is a complicated one, and as much as it might feel good to suggest there are easy answers, I don’t believe this is the case. But the hope is that through sport, bridges can be built between the people of North Korea and the outside world. Maybe it’s best that we leave the politics to the politicians and do what we can to offer the famous Canadian friendship and goodwill to the people of North Korea who have suffered so much in recent times,” Derek says.

“Please take the time to learn and read about the DPRK with an open mind and understand what some of the issues are and what we can do as global citizens to further support her people to organize their society and live their lives the way that they decide is best for them.”

Clip from The National about the trip
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HPY_v8PGv-Q