Soccer Diplomacy for North Korea?

May 10, 2017

North Korea vs. Brazil in the 2010 FIFA World Cup
Credit Wikimedia Commons

  Recent news from North Korea has focused on missile launches and nuclear tests. But when it comes to diplomacy, there may be a lesson from history – and sports. Asia Pacific Management consultant Ray Tsuchiyama shares some thoughts in this commentary.


In April 1971 at the World Table Tennis Championship in Nagoya, Japan, Zhuang Zedong, a Chinese world men’s singles champion, met a young Californian player named Glenn Cowan.  In spite of Chinese laws forbidding any contact with Americans, Zhuang spoke to Cowan about ping-pong. Later, Cowan brought a T-shirt as a present for Zhuang.


That small incident at a sports event was the catalyst for Chairman Mao Zedong to invite nine American ping-pong players to China for exhibition matches.   After a reciprocal U.S. tour by a Chinese ping-pong team, President Richard Nixon visited China, and full U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations were restored in 1979.


Sports was the key for the rapprochement between two enemies: the United States and the People’s Republic of China.


During apocalyptic news about missile launches and carrier task forces in Northeast Asia, sports is the key to get the ball rolling, so to speak, to begin a people-to-people exchange to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.


Credit Wikimedia Commons

Soccer is the top sport in North Korea. The North Korean national soccer team is ranked 115th in the world – not great, but respectable when compared to China – with 1.3 billion people – at 81.


American, Japanese, Chinese, South Korean and North Korean soccer league heads should meet and plan a series of friendly matches in North Korea, perhaps at Pyongyang’s First of May stadium, with 114,000 seats.  The talk must focus on soccer, not politics.


In 1971, the U.S. image of China was identical to how North Korea is viewed today – bristling with nuclear bombs, missiles, and an unpredictable dictator.  Decades later China is still a Communist country, yet has adopted capitalism to advance its economy to become the second-largest in the world.


Sports makes friends.  Like 1971’s Ping-Pong diplomacy, let’s give soccer a chance to create a lasting peace on the Korean peninsula.


Ray Tsuchiyama is an Asia Pacific management consultant based in Honolulu.

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