Eric Fish is what some might consider a veteran of Ultimate Frisbee. The Missouri native has been playing the sport, a mixture of basketball and American football, for around a decade. He says he had never played Ultimate, as its known for short, in any memorable location – that is until last year when he saw an advertisement for a tournament in the North Korean capital Pyongyang.
“I couldn’t pass it up,” said Fish, 27, who studies journalism in Beijing and claims to have a “morbid fascination” with socialist and communist states.
“There is a tendency for bad news (about North Korea), because that’s what the media covers. I assumed there was more nuance to it.”
Fish says he was not disappointed. He was joined by about 60 other players, comprised of Western tourists, members of Pyongyang’s small expat community and around 15 North Koreans that work for a state-run tourism agency.
“I was amazed. They had never played Frisbee before,” he said. “They picked it up pretty quick.”
In August, Ultimate will return to North Korea in what organizers, Beijing-based Koryo Tours, hope will become an annual sports exchange. The company runs other adventure travel packages to the North such as football (soccer), cycling and cricket. Koryo charges 1180 Euros for the 5-day Ultimate tour, which includes stops at North Korean historical sites as well as a chance to teach Frisbee to middle school children.
Elusive North Korea is closed to most foreigners
“Frisbee is like hula hoop, in that we consider it one of the most fundamental and universal things, but there are a lot of people in North Korea who have never seen a Frisbee before,” says Koryo Tours’ Simon Cockerell.
Filling the regime’s coffers?
But some analysts say the money tourists pay to go on these excursions to North Korea only lines the pockets of the ruling regime.
“Such activities have conditioned us to be optimistic and generous to North Korea while North Korea has taken advantage of the outside world’s cash,” says Lee Sung-yoon who lectures in Korean Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the US.
Lee says he does not oppose these kinds of visits in general, but “it’s a bit unrealistic to believe that it will lead to some sort of diplomatic breakthrough,” he said.
Other observers say that Ultimate is an especially fitting kind of sports exchange between nations with a lack of trust.
“There’s a code of conduct, called Spirit of the Game, which is basically be honest, play the right way. That’s a part of the culture of Ultimate and I think spreading that is not a bad thing in any way,” says Andray Abrahamian who helped develop the Pyongyang tournament with Koryo Tours.
Abrahamian, 35, is Executive Director of the Choson Exchange, an NGO that supports economic development in North Korea. He says due to the North’s opaque system, doing work there, whether organizing a sports match or holding workshops on financial management with government officials, presents challenges. “It’s hard to know where the buck stops,” he says. But by holding more sports programs like the Ultimate tournament, in which North Koreans and Americans play as teammates, Abrahamian believes a cultural and political divide can be overcome.
Eric Fish teaches North Korean school children the game of frisbee
“This is just one tiny contribution to the normalizing of interactions between North Koreans and foreigners,” he said.
Spirit of the game
As for Eric Fish, who played in last year’s Pyongyang Ultimate tournament, he says while he can’t be sure how much change his trip made at a diplomatic level, he is confident that at least for the North Koreans he played alongside, their opinions about Americans or Westerners did improve.
“Once you’re playing, you forget who is from where,” he said.
Fish adds that any sense of national allegiance or rivalry was lost during a brief moment of celebration with a North Korean teammate; an instance that still seems surreal to him.
“She ran over, gave me a big old hug,” Fish said. “Wow, getting a hug from a North Korean woman who just scored a point in Ultimate Frisbee. Everything about that situation makes no sense at all.”
Author: Jason Strother, Seoul
Editor: Sarah Berning