Who would have thought that a region of England could become acquainted with a country on the other side of the world to it? Not just any country for that matter, but one largely characterized by international isolation, misunderstanding and disapproval. Through 2018 and 2019, a change has began to take place which has saw the North of East of England become increasingly connected to North Korea. It’s eyebrow raising for most, perhaps even amusing. Far removed from cosmopolitan London, most inhabitants of the region have had little reason to be interested in Kim Jong-un’s state on a day to day basis. Like most people, North Korea is just an object of hysteria or contempt, something understood and thought about little outside of abrasive tabloid headlines. Few could imagine it to play a personal role in their lives.
Yet despite these obstacles, something is changing. The North East is now finding itself increasingly associated with the DPRK through the medium of one thing, football. For all the differences the two, and there are many, not least in politics, society and culture, there is one thing they do have in common. That is, a passion for the beautiful game. Sport is a indirect means of diplomacy. Here, it makes a connection where none could have otherwise been found. Football has set not only a historical precedent for familiarity between the two places, but it is now pioneering a new set of links in some surprising ways. Visit North Korea is proud to be pioneering this effort, one which will be instrumental in changing the way by which both peoples think about the wider world.
Where does the story of ties between North Korea and the North East of England begin? It begins a time before most of us, that is the 1960s. At the peak of the Cold War, the 1966 World Cup was being held in England. Yes, we know how it ended. But do we also know who took part? That’s right, the North Korea national football team. In something that is surreal by today’s standards, they would qualify for the tournament and come and play in England itself. They were placed in a group with Italy, the Soviet Union and Chile. With the group venues including Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park, the DPRK’s association with the North East would begin here. They would play all three of their group games at this venue. Not only would they do so, but they also achieved an upset victory against Italy in a game which fondled memories on Teeside. The game became a park of the local area’s history and is remembered well by locals.
Indeed, one would assume that this event was a “one off” .Whilst it associated the two areas marginally, at best it was a piece of historic trivia than any serious of form of ties. It was not until decades later, that talk of the DPRK and the North East would emerge again. In late 2018 Visit North Korea, a travel company with origins in the region, would sign a deal with local football team Blyth Spartans F.C. to advertise on a banner at its home ground, croft park. The deal created a worldwide media storm which saw the semi-professional team pushed to the forefront of global publicity. In reporting it, the media looked back to the events of 1966 to again affirm connections between the two regions. Long fans responded positively to the news, making videos, wearing Kim Jong un masks and embracing their newly found sponsor, understanding the value of engaging the country. Ties with the North East were no longer a one off, but something now gathering substance.
But it didn’t end there either. In early 2019, Visit North Korea launched its campaign to turn the DPRK “Red and White” by pledging to develop support for Sunderland A.F.C in the country through a shirt donating effort. This again generated significant media coverage. The club itself would contact Visit North Korea and pledge the creation of a local supporters branch in the country, making ties no longer just symbolic or trivial, but the first to be consolidated by an organisation (other than Visit North Korea itself). This is an incredible milestone, one which will have a profound transformation on each party’s view of the other.
This of course, is only the beginning. There is much more to come, Visit North Korea will continue to drive forwards mutual ties between the two areas of the world with creative, innovative and optimistic campaigns. Above all, we see ourselves as driving forwards an exciting change. Through sport, we are breaking down barriers, we are building bridges and we are connecting people in ways that have never been done before. This is history in the making.