Tag Archive | "sports"

PyeongChang or Pyongyang Olympics?: The Politics of North Korean Participation in the Winter Olympics

By Robert King

For 17 days in February, Pyeongchang, South Korea, will host the 23rd Olympic Winter Games.  In the opening ceremony, which will take place in a new 35,000 seat arena built for the occasion, thousands of athletes who have qualified in some 15 Winter Olympic sports from 93 countries from around the world will march behind their national flags.  By Olympic tradition, the Greek athletes will be first to enter the stadium and last will be athletes representing the host country—South Korea (the Republic of Korea).  The host delegation, however, will not march behind the South Korean flag.  The South Korean host athletes, together with North Korean Winter Olympians, will march into the stadium behind a “unified Korea flag”—a white banner with a blue representation of the Korean Peninsula.  The athletes will be designated as representing “Korea”—not the “Republic of Korea” (the South) or the “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea” (the North).

This is not the first time that North and South Koreans have marched together behind the peninsula “unified Korea” flag under the name Korea in Olympic and other sports events.  In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, shortly after the first inter-Korean summit meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jong and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the two countries marched together in the Opening Ceremony.  They did so again in Athens in 2004 and the Turin Winter Olympics of 2006.  They last marched together in the Asian Winter Games of 2007 held in Changchun, China.

The unique feature of these Olympic Games, however, is that the North and South Korea will field a joint women’s hockey team.  Though athletes from North and South have marched together, this will be the first time that the two countries will entered a team with players from both countries.  The South Korean men’s hockey team will be manned only by South Korean athletes, and North Korea’s men’s team did not qualify for the games.  There will not be a combined men’s hockey team.  The joint women’s team has not been particularly popular in the South.  Protesters outside the Seoul rail station this week protested the joint team and burned a photograph of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il (an act which is a serious crime in North Korea).  Public opinion polling indicated that 73 percent of South Koreans do not support the joint women’s hockey team, although 80 percent do support North Korean participation in the games.

Clearly the participation of the North in the PyeongChang Games has benefits for both North and South since both have made a major effort to bring it about.

The advantages for South Korean President Moon Jae-in are, first, a desire to see the games go smoothly.  There has been concern with hostility and erratic behavior from the North, which could represent a threat to the success of the PyeongChang Games.  On September 3rd the North tested its most recent and largest nuclear device, which it said was a thermo-nuclear bomb.  At the end of November, its latest missile test indicated according to Defense Secretary James Mattis that the North has the capability to reach “anywhere in the world.”  Early indications are that Olympic ticket sales and bookings for lodging were below expectations, and questions were raised in the media about the prospects for the safety of the games.  The agreement of the Moon Administration in Seoul with Pyongyang for the North’s participation would assure a safe and secure atmosphere for the games.

A second consideration for Moon Jae-in was his ideological commitment to make progress on better relations with the North and make progress on Korean unification.  He had been Chief Presidential Secretary to President Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008), and played a key role in President Roh’s summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il in October 2007.  After he was sworn in as President, Moon sought to cultivate good relations with the United States, making a visit to Washington shortly after he assumed office.  When this relationship with Washington was solid, he was interested in finding opportunities to improve relations with the North.  The Olympics provided an ideal opportunity for his outreach to the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was also interested in the improvement in relations with South Korea, and Moon found a willing partner.  For the North Korean leader, the relationship with the United States was deteriorating.  After he assumed leadership in the North in January 2012, his relationship with the United States was difficult.  After the new American president assumed office in early 2017, that relationship deteriorated.  President Donald Trump began calling the North Korean leader “Little Rocket Man” in September and Kim Jong-un called the American President a “Dotard.”  The exchanges between them further deteriorated as Trump threatened “fire and fury” and said “we’ll take care of that.”

Though Kim Jong-un responded in kind to Trump’s words, he also appears to understand that a conflict with the United States would result in the devastation of North Korea and the end his regime.  The approaching Winter Olympic Games gave him an opportunity to reach out to South Korea, which, for its own reasons, was seeking an opportunity to engage with the North.  For Kim, rapprochement with the South could begin to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, and this would be helpful to the North.  That was probably one of his principal considerations.

Another benefit from Kim’s point of view was the opportunity to seize public attention.  Like Donald Trump, Kim Jong-un loves international attention, and he benefits from seizing the publicity initiative.  The offer to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics shifted Pyongyang back into the limelight.  The banning of Russia from participating as a country in the PyeongChang Games because of doping violations has all but disappeared as an issue in Olympic news.  North-South cooperation has now seized international media attention.

Kim has taken advantage of the international interest by taking further steps to call attention to the North.  Hyon Song Wol, a beautiful well-known North Korean pop icon who leads Pyongyang’s Samjion pop orchestra, has just completed a visit to the South to examine venues for performances there during the Olympic Games.  Her visit has created a media frenzy in the South.  The Northern delegation to the Olympics will include several hundred cheering fans as well as athletes, musicians, and the ubiquitous “minders” to be certain no visitors overstay.  The North has also used the North-South Olympic fever to call attention to its own Masikryong Ski Resort, where South Korean Olympic competitors will do some training.

The Olympic Moment may be just that.  There are real questions as to whether the thaw in Seoul-Pyongyang relations will bring Spring to the North-South relationship.  There is no sign that Kim is interested in any long-term improvement in relations with the South.  North Korean officials are still harshly dealing with any citizens in the North who dare to reach out to relatives in the South, and the changes involving Olympic participation are all carefully under control Pyongyang’s control.

For the North improving relations with the South may be an effort to seek some relief from the United Nations’ international sanctions and sanctions that individual countries have imposed against the North for its nuclear and missile programs.  In the era of the Sunshine policy when Moon Jae-in was a senior official in the previous President Roh Moo-hyun administration, substantial humanitarian aid and the Kaesong Industrial Complex were key elements in policy towards Pyongyang.  The North would certainly like to see a return to that generous policy.  There is certainly no indication whatever that the Kim Jong-un is willing to make any compromise in his hard line nuclear and missile program.

At the same time, however, any return to such policies will likely lead to severe strain in the relationship between Seoul and Washington.  The excitement of Northern and Southern Olympians marching together into the stadium in PyeongChang on February 9 may well turn into just another of the many short term hopeful steps that is dashed on the incompatibility of the Northern and Southern goals for unification.

Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights.  The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Why Abe Should Go to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics

By Troy Stangarone

Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo recently signaled that he may remain in Japan rather than attend the opening ceremony for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. While Prime Minister Abe could still decide to attend the Games with the Diet signaling a willingness to change its schedule to allow his attendance, it would be a lost opportunity for Japan if he does not.

The Games in PyeongChang kick off a series of three consecutive Olympics in Northeast Asia. After the Games in PyeongChang, Tokyo will host the 2020 Summer Games and Beijing will host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Since the fall, South Korea has pushed for the leaders of Northeast Asia to attend the Games.

If Prime Minister Abe decides to attend the Games, it wouldn’t be unprecedented. When Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympic Games Prime Minster Takeshita Noboru attended and when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 World Cup, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro made reciprocal visits.

Attending the opening ceremony wouldn’t be unprecedented for Prime Minister Abe either. In 2014, he attend the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics as part of an effort to continue improving ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the hopes of concluding a peace treaty to formally end World War II between the two nations. It was also hoped that a resolution could be reached over the return of some of the Japanese islands occupied by the then Soviet Union at the end of the war.

Attending the opening ceremony in PyeongChang would be different. A South Korean task force recently concluded that the agreement reached between Prime Minister Abe and the government of former President Park Geun-hye did not take into account the wishes of the Comfort Women. While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has stated that he will honor the agreement, he has also suggested that Japan should take additional measures, something which Japan has declined to do.

Prime Minister Abe would undoubtedly face questions about his government’s position on the Comfort Women, but the upside of the attending the Games should be enough to encourage him to attend. At the same time, not attending will do nothing to help solve the Comfort Women issue or any other bilateral problem.

Despite the recent thaw from the Olympics, the crisis with North Korea will likely intensify this year, necessitating continued close cooperation between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. With North Korea scoring PR points by agreeing to attend the PyeongChang Games, Prime Minister Abe’s absence would be even more conspicuous.

South Korea has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to attend the closing ceremony of the PyeongChang Games as part of the hand off to the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. It is unclear if President Xi will attend, but he is unlikely to match the impression left by Prime Minister Abe at the Rio Olympics when the organizers handed off to the Tokyo Games and Prime Minister Abe emerged as Super Mario as part of the ceremony.

If anything, Xi Jinping’s apparent reticence to attend should be an incentive for Prime Minister Abe to attend. Despite efforts on the part of the Moon Jae-in government, China still maintains aspects of its economic retaliation over the deployment of the Terminal High Area Altitude Defense (THAAD). If neither Xi or Abe attend, it will leave the impression that both are placing other disputes over the Olympic Games. At the same time, Prime Minister Abe should want to avoid an outcome where President Xi attended and he did not, while the image of Prime Minister Abe and President Moon at the Games would signal the importance both countries place on the relationship.

With Tokyo so close to South Korea, it should be an easy lift regardless of the Diet’s schedule. In the end, attending the PyeongChang Games would be a significant win for Japan. It would allow Prime Minister Abe to build support for the Tokyo Games, signal that Japan maintains close cooperation with South Korea at a critical time, and blunt some of the North Korea’s PR offensive.  Not every Olympics offers that kind of opportunities.


Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Herman Van Rompuy’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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A North Korean Thaw for the Winter Olympics?

By Jenna Gibson

Yesterday, high level delegations from South and North Korea sat down at Panmunjom to engage each other in the first inter-Korean talks in two years. The ultimate result of these talks was that the North Koreans agreed to send athletes, a high-level delegation, and other attendees to the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, and further discussions on other topics may take place in the coming weeks. While few observers doubt the significance of these talks amid a period of increasingly inflammatory rhetoric and talk of preventative strikes by the United States, many disagree about what this agreement will mean for the Korean peninsula going forward.

Some experts are, rightly, skeptical about what this agreement truly means in terms of long-term improvement in inter-Korean relations, or that this is actually a sign of sincere desire for cooperation on the part of the North Koreans. It’s a fair concern – one only has to look back at the inter-Korean talks after 2015’s landmine incident to see that this kind of overture is only good until the next missile test.

However, even with that healthy skepticism in mind, that doesn’t mean that the two sides shouldn’t try to make these small improvements when they can. To return to the 2015 example – in the scheme of things, all that really came out of those talks were a temporary cooling off and a family reunion event. But I challenge anyone to try telling the handful of South Koreans who were able to see family members for the first time in decades that those discussions weren’t worth it.

However, while the opening of talks and the North Korean agreement to send athletes to PyeongChang can be seen as a victory in many ways, this should in no way be an occasion to weaken sanctions and diplomatic pressure on the North Korean regime. Not only would this be premature, given the aforementioned tendency on the part of Pyongyang to renege on any commitments a short time later, but it would also send the wrong message that pressure can be lifted with just a small concession.

So while people are right to see these talks and the Olympics agreement as a positive step, it is far too early to say this is a sign of North Koreas openness or willingness to engage in more formal talks that could make any real dent in the underlying problem on the peninsula – their nuclear and missile program.

“Everything depends on how North Korea behaves,” said Soojin Park, formerly of the South Korean Unification Ministry and now at the Wilson Center, at a KEI event held today. “What will be important will be how things go after the Olympics. Cautiously I’d like to think that during the Olympic period things won’t go too dramatically. After the Olympics, how North Korea reacts and behaves will be how South Korean perceptions of North Korea could change.”

KEI President Manzullo summed up the situation well in a response he wrote regarding last night’s announcement, “Of course, South Korea and the United States need to keep the ultimate goal of denuclearization in mind. But anything that can reduce the chances of a miscalculation or misunderstanding is a positive step.”

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Image from Wikipedia creative commons.

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Why There Won’t Be a Military Conflict During the 2018 Winter Olympics

By Troy Stangarone

With the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics rapidly approaching, concerns about safety have been in the news. Earlier this year, France indicated that it might withdraw its athletes if their safety could not be assured, while U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has suggested that there may be the prospect of conflict during the Olympics. While perhaps prudent to acknowledge the potential concerns for the Olympics from North Korea’s increasingly provocative behavior, concerns about safety during the Olympics are likely misplaced.

As tensions on the Korean Peninsula have risen as a result of North Korea’s three intercontinental ballistic missile tests (ICBM), test of a hydrogen bomb, and stern words out of Washington suggesting the potential for a military solution to address North Korea’s growing capabilities, concerns about the safety of the 2018 Winter Olympics has understandably risen. While perhaps still low, the prospect of military intervention being used to reverse North Korea’s nuclear program is higher than it has been in decades. There is also precedent for North Korea seeking to create tensions around the Olympics on the Korean Peninsula. In the lead up to the 1988 Seoul Summer Games Pyongyang downed Korean Air Flight 858 in what was largely seen as an effort to discourage participation at the Games in Seoul. North Korea’s own unwillingness to date to allow its athletes to take part in the Winter Olympics or dial down the tensions on the peninsula only adds to the concerns.

While it is prudent to be concerned about a potential disruption of the Winter Games in PyeongChang by North Korea, Pyongyang also has little incentive to antagonize China or Russia by placing their athletes and citizens at risk during the games. If Chinese or Russian civilians, along with others, were to die as a result of a North Korean attack on the Olympic Games it would galvanize international opinion against the regime in a way not seen to date and place pressure on Moscow and Beijing to take a harder line against Pyongyang then they have wanted to up to this point. Attacking the Olympic Games could also have the side effect of convincing the international community that a regime that felt it was acceptable to attack the Olympics in peacetime is not one that could be trusted to possess weapons of mass destruction, and thus further build support for the use of military force against North Korea. In essence, there is little incentive for North Korea to endanger the Olympic Games.

However, while there may be little incentive for North Korea to attack the Winter Games, Pyongyang may be motivated to undermine the overall success of the Olympic Games and raise tensions further in the region. Concerns about safety and Chinese retaliation over South Korea’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, among other factors, have already contributed to slower ticket sales than normal. As a result, we should not be surprised if North Korea conducts additional missile tests or engages in other provocative actions in the lead up to the Olympics or during the Games themselves to add to existing concerns over the Olympics. A marred Olympic Games would likely be viewed as much as a success in Pyongyang as a successful Games would be in Seoul.

In contrast to concerns over North Korea’s potential efforts to undermine the 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pushed for the Olympics to be a springboard for peace on the Korean Peninsula. He has encourage the participation of North Korean athletes and called for the postponement of U.S.-South Korean military exercises until after the Olympic and Paralympic Games are concluded in March.

North Korea could yet surprise us and embrace President Moon’s overtures and send its athletes to PyeongChang or take other steps to begin the process of dialogue during the Olympics. However, it is more likely that North Korea will seek to raise tensions in the lead up to the 2018 Winter Olympics than to embrace a path towards dialogue or take the more extreme course of endangering the lives of any of the participants.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Korea.net’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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What Do North Koreans Do for Fun?

By Rose Kwak

It is hard to picture what North Koreans do for fun in a country notoriously known for human rights violations against its people, where seventy percent of the population is food insecure and its people are constantly indoctrinated by the state.  However, despite many bleak and dark images surrounding North Korea, many North Koreans enjoy various forms of entertainment—ranging from taking families to dolphiariums in Pyongyang to inviting friends over for karaoke.

Behind closed doors, many North Koreans also take pleasure in watching South Korean dramas and movies, which is prohibited by the state but easily accessible through video recorders and CDs in black markets. While recreational activities and access to these entertainment venues is largely dependent on socio-economic class and regions, South Korean media is consumed by North Koreans across a wide range of socio-economic gradients. The following are types of entertainment cultures thus far known in North Korea.

Amusement parks and entertainment venues:

Since Kim Jong-Un came into power, Kim has been working toward “improving the lives of his fellow millennials” and has ordered constructions of various entertainment venues. There are quite a number of other large amusement parks across the city such as Kaeson Youth Park and Manyongdae Fun Fair, to name a few. In a power-starved country where the satellites reveal pitch black images by night, Kaeson Youth Park facilities are lit like “Times Square.” Kaeson Youth Park covers more than 400,000 square meters and holds various rides for families and friends to enjoy. Munsu Water Park is another recreational park for families and it includes about 26 pools. The Mirim Riding Club offers horse-back riding for eight dollars per hour outdoors and ten dollars per hour indoors.

In 2012, Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground was opened to the public by Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju at the opening ceremony. Rungra People’s Pleasure Ground offers exciting and varying options for family entertainment including a dolphinarium, water parks and a mini-golf course. There are also ice-skating rinks and ski resorts for those who could afford. Generally, these amusement parks and grounds are reserved for the ten percent of North Korea’s elites.

Drinking, Dining and Dating Culture:

When it comes down to dating and sex, North Koreans are extremely conservative. Dating is strictly forbidden on university campuses, albeit many young couples find a way to go on dates and to enjoy each other’s company. Outside of campus grounds, many young couples go to restaurants that serve tasty meat or go to jangmadang (markets) to shop for small goods, as well as to visit a nearby mountain trail, river side or beach. While average North Koreans cannot afford luxury items, in recent years, many North Korean couples have started to wear matching tokens or jewelry like the South Korean counterparts. Social clubs are another way in which young women and men meet one another. During holidays, social clubs are hosted for masses and dance parties take place in various places such as Kim Il-Sung Square.  Because North Korean men go to military for ten years after high school, most serious romantic relationships develop in the late twenties, often times through blind dates set up through relatives and close friends.

In recent years, there seems to be an increase in demand for restaurants and bars. For average North Koreans, meals usually consist rice and a few side dishes. However, the elite few in Pyongyang tend to revel in lifestyles that poses stark contrast with those of the rest. One journalist reflecting upon this flashy lifestyle explained that this small privileged class known as the “donju”(translated as “masters of money”) are living a cosmopolitan life in “Pyonghattan.” They would spend ten to fifteen euros equivalent per meal to indulge in expensive prime steak or Wiener schnitzel and wear clothes from brands like Zara and H&M.

Another prominent aspect of North Korean recreational life is “eumjugamu.” “Eumjugamu” in Korean is a combined word for “drinking, music, and dancing.” While most North Koreans can’t afford hard liquor like tequila, about eighty to ninety percent of North Korean men drink on daily basis. Average North Koreans drink state-produced alcohol such as Yangdok-sul or Taedonggang beer. Many North Koreans in the countryside brew their own beer with corn or fruits (known as nongtaegi) despite the fact that this is illegal. Unlike their South Korea counterparts, house parties are also fairly common in North Korea. Wealthier elites have karaoke machines to enjoy.

South Korean media consumption:

Consumption of South Korean media is a form of entertainment not just exclusively reserved for the elites. The reason is that many North Koreans are able to obtain video recorders and DVDs illegally through black markets. Especially in Chinese bordering provinces like North Hamgyong, people are able to watch South Korean broadcasts through their television. In other areas, North Koreans are able to obtain South Korean entertainment CDs and DVDs. A defector who lived in Yanggang Province explained that people rent CDs that contain popular South Korean dramas. Many North Koreans also watch South Korean dramas through video recorders that are sold by Chinese merchants or at black markets. Within trusted circles of friends or relatives, many even watch dramas together. The impact of South Korean media consumption is great enough to have affected people’s lingo as North Koreans began to adopt words only used in South Korea.

According to an InterMedia survey of North Korean refugees, approximately 33 percent of North Korean defectors claimed that they had access to and listened to foreign radio. About 47 percent were able to obtain free-tuning radio from the black market and about 23 percent through Chinese merchants. A survey of North Korean defectors revealed that approximately 98 percent of USB owners kept South Korean dramas and/or music. Through “passive dissemination” and “inter-personal distribution,” South Korean TV is becoming rather popular in North Korea.

Kim Jong-un recently launched a North Korean Netflix-style service called Manbang that enables people to re-watch documentaries about their leaders as well as to learn Russian and English. Manbang supposedly offers five channels that show state-sanctioned news and educational programs.

Rose Kwak is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Stefan Krasowski’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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2017 Baseball Preview: South Koreans in Major League Baseball

By Troy Stangarone

With opening day less than two weeks away, we continue our look at South Koreans playing baseball professionally in the United States in the major leagues and the minor leagues. Last season saw a significant influx of new talent from Korea into Major League Baseball (MLB). This season, that is unlikely to be the case. Only Hwang Jae-gyun, a non-roster invitee for the San Francisco Giants who we profiled in our minor league preview, is in a position to make a major league roster out of spring training.

After a tough 2016 for Koreans in MLB, players such as Choo Shin-soo and Ryu Hyun-jin will be looking to come back after an injury-marred season, while Park Byung-ho and Choi Ji-man will be looking to put difficult seasons behind them and try to establish themselves as permanent fixtures in the major leagues. The following is a look brief look at each player’s 2016 and prospects for the new season.

Choo Shin-soo
OF/DH, Texas Rangers

Perhaps the most well-known of the Korean stars in MLB, Choo suffered through an injury-marred 2016 that saw him spend time on the disabled list due to a fracture in his left arm, a strained calf and hamstring, as well as lower back issues. As a result, Choo only played in 48 games, hitting .248 for the year with 7 home runs and 6 stolen bases. As Choo looks to bounce back, look for the Rangers to play Choo less in the outfield and to get more time at DH. Limiting his exposure to the field will help to keep his bat in the lineup and create playing time for Delino DeShields, Jr. and Jurikson Profar, who are both playing well in the spring. If Choo is able to stay healthy, projections have him hitting in the .260-.270 range and getting back to mid-high teens in home runs.

Ryu Hyun-jin
SP, Los Angeles Dodgers

Ryu Hyun-jin was stellar in his transition to the majors in 2013 and followed it up with a strong 2014 season in which he won 14 games, struck out over eight batters per nine innings, and had a 3.38 ERA. That season he was worth 3.8 WAR (wins above a replacement level player). Then shoulder troubles hit and he missed all of the 2015 season and only made one start in 2016. Now healthy, Ryu is looking to regain his spot in the Dodgers’ rotation, but is unlikely to start the season in the rotation due to the Dodgers starting pitching depth and a fastball that is only averaging around 87 mph so far this spring. However, if he can maintain his health and get his velocity back up to his pre-injury average of just over 91 mph he should be able to return to form.

Kang Jung-ho
3B, Pittsburgh Pirates

Setting aside doubts about the ability of his game to translate in the major leagues, Kang Jung-ho had a strong rookie campaign in 2015 hitting .287 with 15 home runs for a 3.9 WAR season. Much like Choo and Ryu, Kang began 2016 with a knee injury and only played in 103 games, but boosted his power for 21 home runs in his return. Kang has proven he can hit in the majors, but his off-the-field behavior is marring the beginning of his 2017 season. In December, he was arrested for his 3rd DUI in Korea and received an eight month suspended sentence. At the moment, he is still in South Korea waiting for his new work visa to be approved and there is no timetable for his return to the United States. Once he is able to return to the Pirates, Kang is projected to again hit in the .260-.270 range with a home run total in the high teens to low twenties and be for close to 3 WAR. While Kang is an offensive plus for the Pirates his position, the weak contact he makes on balls on the ground could put pressure on his batting average.

Kim Hyun-soo
OF, Baltimore Orioles

After a rough spring training where the Orioles tried to convince Kim Hyun-soo to go to the minors to work on his swing, Kim put together a productive season hitting .302 with 6 home runs in 92 games. Kim’s strengths from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) seemed to translate to the majors where he had a good walk to strike out ratio, as well as above league average exit velocity on batted balls. That has led to a good on base percentage and could put him in line to hit leadoff for the Orioles this year. One challenge for Kim as he enters his second season in the majors is to try and increase his fly ball rate as he currently hits more ground balls than the league average at the moment. If he can gain more loft he has the potential for 15 home runs.

Oh Seung-hwan
P, St. Louis Cardinals

In his first season in the majors, “The Final Boss” became just that as he took over closing duties for the St. Louis Cardinals shortly after they removed Trever Rosenthal from the closers role in late June. Much as he had done previously in Korea and Japan, Oh dominated from there on out picking up 19 saves to go along with a 1.92 ERA and 11.6 strike outs per nine innings.  Coming into 2017 Oh is firmly entrenched in his role as Cardinal’s closer and should dominate again. Projections coming into the season have him largely maintaining his strikeout to walks ratio, with only a slight regression on his ERA likely into the low-to-mid twos.

Park Byung-ho
1B/DH, Minnesota Twins

After staring in the KBO, Park Byung-ho hoped to become one of MLB’s leading sluggers. However, he struggled with his transition to the United States last season. After hitting only .191 and striking out in nearly 33 percent of his at bats, Park was optioned to the minors where he continued to struggle before his season ended due to an injury he suffered to his right middle finger that required surgery. The injury had bothered him much of the season and may have impacted his performance. Though the power remained as he did hit 12 home runs. However, his struggles last season led to Park being waived off the major league roster during the offseason and have left him fighting for a job this spring. Park is playing better this spring, hitting .361 with 4 home runs, but he is striking out at close to the same rate as last season. If he is going to avoid significant time in the minors this season he’s going to need to keep the strikeouts under control and improve his batting average.

Choi Ji-man
1B/OF, New York Yankees

Similar to Choo Shin-soo, Choi Ji-man has worked his way from the minors to the majors. Choi has always had good swing and plate discipline, but his power has decreased since being suspended for using performance enhancing drugs. He struggled in his first taste of the majors last year hitting .170 with 5 home runs. Now with the New York Yankees, he’ll likely serve as minor league depth with Greg Bird, Chris Carter, and Austin Tyler likely to get the majority of the playing time.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America.  The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image created by Juni Kim, Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America, with photos from Keith Allison’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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2017 Baseball Preview: South Korean Minor League Prospects

By Troy Stangarone and Christopher Hurst

Last season, a record setting five South Koreans made their professional debuts in Major League Baseball (MLB). They joined established stars such as Choi Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Not all of last year’s rookie class transitioned to the majors as well as Choi and Ryu did, but Oh Seung-hwan, “The Final Boss,” ended the season strong as the St. Louis Cardinal’s closer.

As teams continue to look overseas for talent they have also looked to South Korea for prospects, signing players before they enter the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). The following is a look at the three South Koreans signed by the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees, as well as established KBO star Hwang Jae-gyun who signed a minor league deal with the San Francisco Giants but has a good chance of making the team out of spring training.

Park Hyo Jun
SS, New York Yankees

Park Hyo Jun is one of the younger Korean player in the minor leagues and has never actually played professionally in Korea. Signed by the New York Yankees for $1.2 million at the age of 18, he made his professional debut with the rookie development league Pulaski Yankees in 2015. He did well enough in Pulaski to be promoted to Class A ball with the Charleston River Dogs in 2016. Known as an athletic shortstop with a strong arm, Park has also spent some time at second base because of the surplus of shortstop prospects in the Yankee system. During the 2016 season he batted .225 with an on .336 OBP. One reason for his low batting average are the 120 strikeout he accumulated at the plate. However, when Park gets on base, pitchers need to pay attention as he stole 32 bases out of 35 attempts last year. Coaches this year are focusing on him using more of his lower body on defense and becoming more patient at the plate. Currently he is expected return back to Charleston at the end of spring training, though there are plenty of trade rumors with the Yankees glut of strong shortstops in the minor leagues.

Hwang Jae-gyun
3B, San Francisco Giants

The San Francisco Giants signed the 10 year KBO veteran Hwang Jae-gyun to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training this past winter. As part of his preparation for the MLB last year, Hwang had to learn how to control one of the most exciting parts of his game; his ability to flip a bat. Hwang become a minor YouTube celebrity in the summer of 2015 with this epic flip. Knowing that he wanted to play in the majors Hwang stopped the bat flips and brought the focus back to his power last year. He hit 26 homeruns while batting .330 for the Lotte Giants. This spring he is batting .313 with 2 homeruns in 16 Catcus League at bats. Hwang will have to continue to show the same power that made him feared in the KBO if he wants to make the Giants roster. He is currently seen as potential pinch hitter/backup utility infielder. If Hwang doesn’t make it on the 25 man roster with the S.F. Giants, he has said he will consider joining their minor league club. However, a bigger paycheck in the Japanese Nippon league might call him away from his MLB dream.

Kwan Kwang-min
OF/1B, Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs signed Kwan Kwang-min out of Jangchung High School in Seoul as part of their 2015 July 2 international free agent class for $1.2 million. The 19 year old Kwan is the most recent Cubs signee from Korea, a market where they have been relatively active. The left handed Kwan is an athletic outfielder with speed, raw power, and a good work ethic, but at 6’2’’ and 210 lbs he may be destined for first base. If that is the case, it will increase the pressure on his bat. While Kwan has a good feel for the strike zone, he has had difficulty making contact so far in his career. In 2016, he only played nine games for the Cubs Arizona league team and struck out in just shy of 30 percent of his at bats. Though this is an admittedly small sample size, the Cubs are working with Kwan on cutting down on his swing to help him get to that power more often. Look for Kwan to stay in extended spring training to continue to work on his swing and get additional playing time in the Arizona league later this summer.

Son Ho-young
P, Chicago Cubs

If Kwan Kwang-min is the Chicago Cubs power hitting prospect, the 21 year old Son Ho-young is their hard throwing Korean pitching prospect. Previously a promising shortstop, Son was signed as a speedy, defensively oriented prospect. After two seasons on the Cubs Arizona league team in and the rookie league team in Eugene, OR, his inability to hit resulted in his conversion to a pitcher to take advantage of his strong arm. It is still early in Son’s conversion to pitcher. He only pitched 3.1 innings for the Cubs Arizona league team last season, striking out three, but also giving up three runs. With Son already being 21, if he takes to pitching in the Arizona league this year, look for the Cubs to push him to their rookie league team in Eugene and perhaps further to accelerate his development.

Last season, Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins and Choi Ji-man of the Los Angeles Angels won jobs out of spring training. Both struggled during their rookie seasons in the majors and are fighting for jobs this spring, and Choi is now with the New York Yankees. We’ll preview them in our upcoming look at South Koreans in the major leagues.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. Christopher Hurst was previously an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Photo from Dave R’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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Which South Korean Stars from the 2017 Asian Games Might Break Out at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang?

By Jennifer Cho and Patrick Niceforo

South Korea finished second overall with 50 medals at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo and Obihiro, Japan. In 2018, South Korea will host the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang and, according to Gracenote’s sports data, is predicted to place 8th overall with 10 medals. Below, find our list of athletes to watch for in Pyeongchang.

Speed Skating

Lee Sang-hwa, the gold medalist from both 2010 Vancouver and 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, recently won a silver medal in 500m at the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo. She holds the current world record in women’s 500m with the time of 36.36 seconds. With the recovery of her right calf muscle, she is expected to be a three-time Olympic champion in 500m speed skating.

Lee Seung-hoon, a former short track speed skater, converted to long track in September 2009 and became the first Asian man to win a gold medal in men’s 10,000m and a silver medal in men’s 5,000m the at 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. At the 2017 Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, he won four gold medals in men’s 5,000m, 10,000m, mass start, and team pursuits, overcoming his knee injury. He is expected to win medals in 5,000m and 1,000m in Pyeongchang 2018.

Short Track Speed Skating

Shim Suk-hee won a bronze medal in women’s 1,000m, a silver medal in 1,500m, and a gold medal in the 3,000m relay at 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Recently, she claimed two gold medals in the 1,000m and in the 3,000m relay and a silver medal in the 1,500m in Sapporo. The 2017 Winter Asian Games reaffirmed her status as a future medalist in short track speed skating at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Lee Jung-su was a two time Olympic champion in the 1,000m and the 1,500m at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. At the 2017 Winter Asian Games in Sapporo, he won a silver medal in the 5,000m relay and a bronze medal in the 1,500m. As a captain of Korean short track speed skating team, his strategy in the 1,500m led Seo Yi-ra to win the gold medal in the race. He supported his teammates throughout the Winter Games. His leadership will strengthen the Korean short track team at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Figure Skating

Seventeen-year old Choi Da-bin took home the gold for women’s singles in Sapporo. She was originally ineligible to compete since she placed 5th at a national trial in October of last year. However, Choi became eligible to compete after fellow figure skaters Kim Na-hyun and Park So-youn dropped out. Choi, who has been dubbed “the next Kim Yuna,” competes next at the ISU World Skating Championship in Finland. If Choi places at least in the top 10, South Korea will be eligible for two spots in women’s singles in Pyeongchang.


At the end of 2016, Lee Sang-ho placed fourth in parallel giant slalom at the International Ski Federation Snowboard World Cup in Italy, a national record for South Korea. Buoyed by his success, Lee expressed optimism about taking home a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics. He later claimed the first gold of the 2017 Asian Winter Games in men’s giant slalom and another gold in men’s slalom. If Lee maintains his momentum, South Korea could potentially claim its first Winter Olympics gold medal in a non-skating related event.

Ice Hockey

The men’s ice hockey team earned silver at Sapporo, their highest placement yet at the Asian Winter Games. The team includes forward Park Woo-sang, a three-time Asia League champion, and several naturalized citizens such as goaltender Matt Dalton. Dalton is Canadian-born and was formerly signed with the Boston Bruins. The team is coached by Jim Paek, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Pittsburgh Penguins and the first ever Korean-born NHL player. Coach Paek will lead South Korea in its first ever Olympic hockey qualification in Pyeongchang.

Jennifer Cho is a graduate of Kalamazoo College and an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Patrick Niceforo is a graduate student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and an intern at KEI. The views expressed here are the authors’ alone.

Image created by Sang Kim, Director of Public Affairs and Intern Coordinator at KEI.

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South Korea and the 2017 World Baseball Classic

By Troy Stangarone

Much like soccer’s World Cup, the World Baseball Classic brings together national teams from around the world in an international tournament to compete for being the world’s best. Since the tournament began in 2006, South Korea has been one of the world’s best teams, taking part in each World Baseball Classic to date and finishing in second place in 2009. How do South Korea’s chances look in the 2017 tournament?

As South Korea kicks off this year’s tournament in the opening game against Israel, the 2017 team will be led by World Baseball Classic (WBC) veteran and St. Louis Cardinals’ closer, Oh Seung-hwan,  also known as the “The Final Boss.” He will be joined by a collection of all-stars from the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), but not by the other Korean born players in Major League Baseball (MLB). South Korea will be without prior WBC stars such as Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers and Kim Hyun-soo of the Baltimore Orioles, who are focused on spring training, as well as Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins who is trying to reestablish himself in the majors, Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers who is recovering from injuries, and Kang Jang-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates who is dealing with legal issues related to drunk driving.

It is not unusual for players in MLB to focus on Spring Training rather than take part in the WBC. Choo last played for Korea in 2009 and new players tend to break out each tournament such has Kim Hyun-soo did that same year when he hit over .500. Some players who may become new stars for South Korea at the 2017 WBC include:

Choi Hyung-woo:  A power hitting leftfielder who was a KBO all-star in 2016 and runner up in the MVP race. He has averaged over 30 home runs in the last four years in the KBO and looks to be a major piece of Korea’s offense in the 2017 tournament.

Lee Dae-ho: Lee provides South Korea with another power bat and prior experience playing both in Japan and MLB with the Seattle Mariners. While Lee spent only one season with the Mariners, he hit 14 home runs in part-time play and should be a force in Korea’s lineup having hit .345 in the last two Word Baseball Classics.

Seo Geon-chang:  One of Korea’s more talented infielders, Seo is a potential dynamic player for South Korea. He combines speed and moderate power as part of his game. In his 2014 KBO MVP season, he became the first player in KBO history to reach 200 hits in a season and also holds the single season records for runs scored and triples.

Jang Won-jun: Jang is one of two starters that South Korea is likely to lean on during the tournament. An all-star in 2016 who posted a 3.32 ERA, Jang is one of the better pitchers in the KBO. The lefthander features a fastball, slider, and change up.

Yang Hyeon-jong: Another lefthander, Yang will team with Jang Won-jun to give South Korea two strong starters at the top of their rotation. Yang is viewed as having the ability to be a number 3 starter in MLB and features a four pitch arsenal that includes a fastball that averages 92-95.

Beyond the South Korean national team, this World Baseball Classic will be special for South Korea as it will serve as one of the host nations for opening round play for the first time. While the KBO was only founded in 1982, baseball has continued to grow in popularity in South Korea, especially among the young and women. Hosting Group A play in the new Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea’s first enclosed stadium, will allow South Koreans to cheer on the national team as they take on Israel, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. Likely helping to continue driving the popularity of the game in South Korea.

What are South Korea’s chances in the WBC? Despite having moved out of the group stage in all but the last WBC, South Korea is projected to have a lower wins above replacement (WAR) total than two of its group stage competitors in Israel and the Netherlands. However, home field should give South Korea an advantage in group play and if South Korea is able to get a lead “The Final Boss” will be anchoring a bullpen that is projected to be better than all of its group stage competitors other than the Netherlands.

While South Korea’s roster may seem weaker than in years past based on available metrics relative to its competition, it is difficult to judge the talent level of teams’ non-MLB players. But South Korea holds an advantage over its other group competitors in that the KBO is probably the strongest professional league outside of the United States and Japan, giving Team Korea depth to draw from. Additionally, having a wealth of major league talent has not always been the key to success in the tournament as the United States knows too well. Its 2006 team featured a collection of MLB stars in their prime including Chipper Jones, Chase Utley, Vernon Wells, Matt Holiday, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Derek Jeter. That team finished 8th and was knocked out of the tournament in the second round.

However South Korea’s team performs, expect the Sky Dome to be rocking and for there to be lots of thunder sticks involved as South Koreans root on their team.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Charlton Clemen’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons. 

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Sports in North Korea

By Caleb Cho

According to a South Korean News Agency, Choe Ryong-hae, vice chairman of North Korea’s Worker’s Party Central Committee, was sent to Brazil along with 31 athletes for the Rio Olympic Games.  Given the fact that North Korea has been so isolated from international community for decades and the number of athletes representing North Korea is significantly smaller than that of South Korea, what would be the implication of presence of the state’s second most powerful person in Rio? What does sports mean in daily life of North Korea?

Popularity of Sports

In North Korea, the regime tries to draw the attention of the public to sports, propagating a slogan “Health is a great asset to the country!”. Especially, for most high school boys who are required to join the military after high school, sports is what they care about more than any other subject or their GPA. The most popular sports in North Korea include soccer, Taekwondo, gymnastics, boxing, and track & field. However, more recently basketball, has gained in popularity among the younger generations and is allegedly Kim Jong-un’s favorite sport. Generally speaking, North Koreans are more interested in sports related to national defense than those related to leisure or entertainment.

The regime proactively uses sports to inspire national pride and to release dissatisfaction of the public that originated from the economic downturns since the mid-1990s. The state gives some honors and rewards to players and coaches who get medals in international sports games. For example, gold medalists in World Championships or Olympic Games can receive a luxury car and an apartment with highest honor in sports, and are even praised as national heroes who boost the statue of the state in the world. They are also used in the state’s propaganda to demonstrate the “superiority” of its communism social system and to gain loyalty for the regime.

Jong Song Ok by Uri Tour's

National hero in North Korea: Jong Song-ok. Photo from Uri Tour’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

Jong Song-ok, who won the women’s marathon at the 1999 World Championships, and Kye Sun-hui, who won a gold medal in women’s Judo at an Olympic and four golds in a row at World Championships are among those examples of the state’s use of athletes for propaganda. Television dramas and movies inspired by their stories were made in North Korea.

One of the most interesting facts regarding North Korean sports is that most of athletics who have gained medals in major sporting events are female. Compared to the performance of male athletes, achievements that North Korea’s female athletics have made in some sports areas such as weightlifting, soccer, and judo are somewhat miraculous given the outdated sports infrastructure and technology in North Korea.

Sports in Media

Sports, just like all other sectors in North Korea, are subject to the propaganda of the state where everything is served for the regime and freedom of the press is absent. It may be natural for the state media to selectively broadcast only those recorded games with wins and good performances. And, of course, live broadcasting is awfully rare to avoid national embarrassment. However, there have been exceptional cases of live broadcasts lately in North Korea as the number of athletes who win a prize in international sporting events is getting less and less and often times entering the tournament itself is an inspiration for North Korea. However, there is a downside to live broadcasts. North Korea aired its World Cup soccer match with Portugal live during the 2010 FIFA World Cup, where the state’s football team was defeated 7-0 by Portugal. However, it was the first time North Korea made the World Cup since 1966.

Investment and Sports Marketing

North Korea has a system and the experience to do anything at full gallop for the purpose of showing off national power, so the best players nationwide are often gathered on a single team and receive training together for a long period of time. In case of soccer, the most popular sport in the country, there is a team called the “4.25 sports club” which recruits the nation’s best talented players in their early ages and sends them altogether as a whole team representing the nation for any international games. Even though there are several leagues and teams supported by each government sector, national league games, in general, lack of interest because of a distinct gap in skills between teams.

There is little known about North Korean leaders’ favorite sports, however, the regime seems to provide regular and systemic support in the areas of soccer, taekwondo, track & field, and boxing on an industrial scale. Also, while matches are broadcast in a handful of sports, the reality is that it is too difficult to fully watch a game to the end due to severe power shortages. For the young generations who like sports such as soccer or basketball, the best way is to watch video clips saved in CDs or memory sticks, which are often illegally bought and circulated through the black market by individuals who have visited or stayed foreign countries. That might be how the world’s sports superstars such as Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are also known to North Korean nationals.

In conclusion, North Korea puts its emphasis on several defense related sports and its investment is concentrated in a handful of areas according to the state’s purpose and interest. Sports is used as a tool of the regime’s propaganda to enhance its status in the world and to distract public discontent rising from economic failure. The access to modern sports information and technology is made mainly through a limited number of professional players and sports manias; on the other hand, it may take a long to realize the popularization of sports in North Korea due to the lack of necessary infrastructure in the state.

Caleb Cho is an intern with the Korea Economic Institute of America and a masters candidate in Economics at Tufts University. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from Andrea Williams photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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About The Peninsula

The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.