Diving Into North Korea's Strange Relationship To Sports
At times it can feel like everything is wrapped up in some kind of messaging. This week at Cracked, we're taking a closer look at propaganda and how it has shaped the world in ways that may not be so obvious.
Sports are relatively simple—a series of rules are laid down, competitors … uh … compete, and then a result is decided. Rules may vary slightly in different versions, like how Olympic basketball is slightly changed from the NBA game or how soccer is called “footie” in a lot of countries, but games are games. Sports rules are one of the few things where all of humanity seems to say, “Eh, let’s not fight too much about this.”
That is, unless you’re North Korea, the nation-state equivalent of a guy who locked himself in a dark room peeing in bottles and fist fighting pillows until he convinced himself he was Jesus. North Korea has no time for things like “agreed-upon conventions” or “sporting tradition” or “the concept of observable reality.” Sports in North Korea can get so ridiculous, it makes Calvinball look reasonable ...
The Obvious Dictator Stuff: Celebrating Victories That Never Happened
It’s Authoritarian 101 to embellish triumphs from a romanticized past version of your country. Mussolini wanted Italy to restore the glory of the Roman Empire, Hitler wanted Nazi Germany to be a spiritual successor to the Holy Roman Empire and German Empire (a third reich, if you will), and Donald Trump is obsessed with a magical American era when you didn’t have to flush your toilet 10-15 times and could send Latine people on death marches. Saying “things used to be better, let’s return to glory” is a powerful, resonant message. But it involves telling your people their present selves suck. The advanced version, Authoritarian 201, is simply saying your nation is kick-ass right now despite no observable proof.
For instance, did you know North Korea has won a World Cup? Or remember when star runner Jong Song-ok won Olympic Gold in 2000? Of course, you don’t, the first never happened, and Jong Song-ok was actually banned from the 2000 Olympics by Kim Jong-il himself because he was afraid she’d lose. Yet North Korea loves making murals depicting these and other sports triumphs, like beating lions in soccer. The audacity of creating huge works of art depicting not only things that didn’t happen, but are basically the opposite of what really happened, is pretty breathtaking. You’ve got to be pretty sure of your command of reality to do that. The soccer lions are just weird, though.
Obviously, America is no stranger to weirdo political fan art. Here’s a shirt where Fredrick Douglass Animorphs into Martin Luther King, Jr. and then Barack Obama. Here are some deranged paintings of Donald Trump teaching a kid to fish, a thing Trump definitely knows how to do. Those are propagandistic pieces of art, but there’s at least a metaphor at work. The North Korean government just kicks the doors in, yells “We got the best boxers, the fastest runners, and we won the World Cup, bitches!” Then government officials presumably drink enough Hennessey to believe it’s true.
North Korean Basketball Rules Are Insane
Warping reality can go deeper than factually inaccurate images. Sometimes you just gotta say “there is no spoon” and completely change the rules. North Korea’s bonkers approach to basketball does exactly that. I mentioned earlier how international basketball and the NBA have different rules, but those are petty squabbles about things like when you can call timeouts or how many fouls are allowed. North Korea treats Dr. James Naismith’s game like that guy who modded Red Dead Redemption 2 to have MCU characters. And it mostly has to do with strategy-shifting scoring changes.
Maybe the most easily understandable change is that dunks are worth three points. Dunks are rad, they’re not (usually) easy to pull off, they get the crowd going … sure, make them three points. Games can also end in a tie, which … okay, so can football, hockey, and soccer games, I guess. Seems lazy, though, when it is so easy to score in basketball. But still pretty inoffensive; let’s get into the truly wild stuff:
A three-pointer is worth four points if the ball doesn’t touch the rim. This is a tremendously ticky-tacky call for a ref to have to make right in the middle of the action. A single point can seriously alter the course of a game (just ask the 1997 Utah Jazz), and this rule gives a lot of power to/puts stress on refs. Speaking of a single point, missing a free throw means deducting a point. I have to imagine guys who can’t hit free throws get Full Metal Jacket-style soap bar beatings after practice. While we’re on the topic of deciding games in split seconds: any shot made in the last three seconds counts for eight points. Eight points! That means a 15-point lead—usually safe enough to be called a blowout—could be completely obliterated with the right sequence of events. I have been avidly playing, watching, and reading about basketball for 75% of my life, and I cannot imagine what a game looks like with the rules I just typed in this paragraph.
For example, one of the craziest things to ever happen in an NBA game was Houston Rockets star Tracy McGrady scoring an unheard-of 13 points in 33 seconds to cap a miraculous comeback against the San Antonio Spurs:
I’m a little fuzzy on counting three-pointers that don’t hit the rim—does it have to be purely nothing but net, or does it just penalize balls that bounce and then go in?—but liberally, that’s an extra four points for McGrady in that sequence. I’m also assuming neither team is simply fouling the worst free-throw shooter on the other team every time—the Spurs to prevent the Rockets from scoring, the Rockets to try to magically make the Spurs’ lead evaporate via point deduction.
Then, there’s the eight points in under three seconds. McGrady’s last shot leaves his hand with 3.0 left and goes through the hoop with 1.7 left. Assuming that’s eight points, I’ve got McGrady scoring a mind-blowing 25 points in 33 seconds. That turns a very safe Spurs lead with under a minute left into a shellacking from the Rockets. How do you even strategize for possibilities like that? It’s wackier than an American football coach running a soccer team or a golfer using a hockey stick to putt. Truly wild stuff, unless you’re from North Korea.
The Kim Family Is Obsessed With The 90s Chicago Bulls
I mentioned the Kim family’s love of Hennessey earlier, so let’s go back and talk about Michael Jordan. Look, I love Michael Jordan. Have since I was eight years old. And let me tell you, there’s a long, hard look in the mirror you have to take when you realize you share a passion with not one but two dictators.
Turns out, Kim Jong-un is just another ‘90s kid, obsessed with the ’90s Bulls (and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies). But unlike my dad, Kim Jong-il is 1) also a Bulls fan and 2) has enough sway to invite Michael Jordan to come play for him personally. Jordan, for his part, “respectfully declined” the invitation. I, on the other hand, got a lesson on the unfairness of the universe. My dad’s never tortured or disappeared anyone (that I know of), and he can’t even get a “respectfully declined” from MJ for my 10-year-old birthday party? This is hogwash, universe.
Jordan’s refusal to travel to North Korea and play an exhibition game for someone accused of serious human rights abuses makes sense. MJ’s a billionaire businessman and NBA franchise owner. It’d look bad. Do you know who’s never cared about making sense or looking bad? That’s right, Dennis Rodman! The other, other guy on those 90s Bulls teams (and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies):
Yes, the man with the '90s Big Three of Parental Fears (dyed hair, body piercings, tattoos) is the best of homies with a third-generation dictator with nuclear capabilities. The best rebounder of all time and the only dude who could defend Shaq got the call from the guy who (allegedly) had his uncle fed to starving dogs. Rodman’s response? Presumably, something like, “Of course, I want to fly across the world, play basketball, and sing a vaguely Marilyn Monroe-esque ‘Happy Birthday’ while everyone claps offbeat.”
The Rodman-Kim hookup kinda sounded absurd, but it makes sense. American culture rewards extreme narcissism and attention-seeking, while Kim Jong-un 1) loves basketball and 2) is desperate to be seen as legitimate on the world stage. One of the signature achievements of the Trump era is the proof that it doesn’t matter how much of a dick-clown you are, just as long as you’re the biggest dick-clown on TV. This was a chance for Rodman to be on TV again and try out a “peacemaker” narrative, plus a chance for Kim Jong-un to meet a hero. Not to mention Trump looking like a genius for doing what no American president could with regards to North Korea. At the very least, no press is bad press … I guess?
“No press is bad press” is when I start feeling queasy, though. I’m generally sympathetic to Rodman. He’s had a pretty brutal life full of early childhood problems, substance abuse issues, abusive relationships, and barely-treated mental health struggles. But there’s no denying he seeks attention above everything else. What gets more attention than kicking it with a dictator? And what’s potentially more dangerous than running afoul of a dictator? One side leads to a moment in the spotlight and maybe world peace; one side leads to the wrong end of some military attache’s gun and permanent hard labor.
The sad thing is I simply can’t imagine this being a productive relationship at all for Dennis. Sure, Kim Jong-un is a lifelong fan, and Donald Trump probably likes Dennis as much as Trump can like anybody. But you just know all three are in the relationship because it serves their own purposes. Narcissism is a spiritual hole that can’t be filled. Trump and Kim at least have whatever legitimacy being a world leader gives you. Rodman doesn’t; his November 2021 GQ feature has him pondering things like “After turning 60 years old, what’s left of me?” and “How do I prepare myself to die?” Maybe it’s humanizing for a dictator like Kim Jong-un to be a '90s Bulls fan, but what’s the human cost for a fragile person like Dennis Rodman to be involved in that theater?
Come On, You Had To Know Professional Wrestling Was Coming
Speaking of attention-seeking theater with no regard for human life: Eric Bischoff. Way back in 1994, Bischoff had ascended to the top of World Championship Wrestling, then a promotion with a mostly Southern-United-States-based territorial audience. Bischoff had his sights set on growing the brand so much they would compete with the then-WWF directly. One way to get an audience outside of the American South is to do big international cross-promotions with New Japan Wrestling. After all, it’s hard to get farther away from Atlanta than Tokyo. WCW and NJW had had a productive relationship that had soured over the years, but Bischoff was looking to rebuild.
Enter Antonio Inoki—founder of New Japan Wrestling, wrestler, politician, and all-around charmer. Inoki had a history of being idealistic about wrestling uniting cultures. He even used pro wrestling (and his status as a member of Parliament) to negotiate the release of Japanese prisoners in Iraq before the Gulf War. Imagine Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson on steroids. Wait. Imagine Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson with a successful political career. There we go! Not to mention Inoki’s mentor, Rikidozan, was a North Korean national who found success on the Japanese wrestling circuit. So Inoki had some interest in North Korea. He proposed a WCW/NJW crossover in Pyongyang under the banner of a peace rally. Bischoff could not fall over himself fast enough to say yes.
Getting a bunch of American wrestlers to North Korea was not an easy task. Bischoff himself admits to bypassing the U.S. government because they were taking too long to give him permission. Once there, it became very clear that everyone in WCW had no idea what they were getting themselves into. At a clearly unused airport, wrestlers had their passports taken away by military personnel. At a big ceremony, wrestlers were forced to lay flowers at the feet of and pay homage to a statue of Kim Il-sun, despite very much not knowing exactly who he was. Wrestlers had armed guards following them everywhere. The surveillance was severe enough that Scott Norton found out the hard way his phone had been tapped.
Norton had been trying to call his wife. After three days, he finally got a connection. She thought he’d been out partying and lit into him while he was trying to reassure her he simply hadn’t had access. Finally, Norton said, “You don’t understand what a shithole I’m in.” That’s when the line went dead. Then a knock at the door. An abundance of guards showed up, Norton was whisked away to an interrogation room with guns trained on him, and he was told in no uncertain terms that saying anything bad about North Korea would result in him not leaving North Korea. Norton, uh … kept a low profile for the rest of the trip.
When it came time for the main event, the largest crowd in the history of wrestling had gathered. The claimed numbers for the first day are 165,000 people and 190,000 people for the second day. For reference, the biggest, most box-office shattering numbers in the U.S. top out around 100,000. Since wrestlers feed off crowds, these huge numbers should be a good thing, right?
Wrong! The audience was forced-at-gunpoint to be there, and it was very clear that they had no idea what they were watching and why. To be fair, pro wrestling is inherently ridiculous, and I wonder how well a crowd that big could actually see what was going on in the squared circle. But for the entire spectacle to be met with complete silence was eerie. You could speculate all day about an audience being unfamiliar with a sport, an audience being afraid that reacting the wrong way gets them sent to prison, or an audience being indifferent to Mandatory Fun. But that level of indifference certainly affected the wrestlers, who were already stretched to their mental limits.
The dam broke, though, when Inoki entered the ring to face American superstar Ric Flair. Inoki’s star power and connection to Rikidozan shone through, and something came alive in the crowd. Inoki might as well have been the hometown hero, with Flair the alien invader who everyone unites against. Flair, legendary for being great at putting opponents over, understood the assignment: getting his ass whomped and then shaking hands with the only man who could make the crowd come alive.
What that crowd coming alive at Inoki’s victory illustrates is how visceral sports success and national pride can be. You get someone lifting up the glory of your people, exemplifying their best—that’s powerful stuff. People get amped for that. It’s also an example of how effective propaganda is. The outcomes of wrestling matches are decided before the competitors enter the ring. All you have to do is work backward from that—change the rules of basketball, get endorsed by basketball legends, paint murals for self-aggrandizement purposes—and you’ve got some pretty successful propaganda. After all, if the people you’re trying to control never see you lose, have you ever lost? I can’t hear you; I’m too busy hitting eight-pointers in my backyard hoop, scores of neighbors are cheering my excellence, and none of you can prove me otherwise.
Chris Corlew scored 70 points in a single quarter of basketball once and also held the WWE’s Intercontinental Championship for a weekend in 1998. It doesn’t matter that both of these accomplishments happened on a Nintendo 64. Find Chris on Twitter.
Top image: Uri Tours