British Columbia

Vancouver company offering 9-day hockey tour to North Korea

Inertia Network plans to bring 50 customers to the Hermit Kingdom for the May 2020 Pyongyang Cup, touted as North Korea's first mixed-team hockey tournament.

Inertia Network says Pyeonyang Cup is part social experiment, but Global Affairs Canada urges caution

Closing the Gap documentary producer Sunny Hahm with North Korean youth players at Pyongyang's ice arena. (Closing the Gap/Matt Reichel)

It might not be the beach vacation many dream of at this time of year, but then again, the Vancouver company offering a nine day hockey and cultural exchange to North Korea is not in the business of sun and sand.

Inertia Network, which describes its mission as "organizing authentically adventurous community-based expeditions," is planning to bring 50 customers — 30 players and 20 spectators — to the Hermit Kingdom in May 2020 for the Pyongyang Cup, touted as "North Korea's first mixed-team hockey tournament."

"There's a whole part of the tournament that is social experiment," said Inertia Network co-founder Matt Reichel. "Can you bring people together who are just normal people from a bunch of different backgrounds and create a very intensive social program together?" 

The Pyongyang Cup should not be mistaken for an elite nation-versus-nation sporting spectacular. Instead, 30 North Korean players and the 30 foreign players — male and female — will be divided into four balanced teams that will play a total of seven games.

The required level of hockey experience is "intermediate rec league" and costs $3,800 Cdn per person, which doesn't cover travel to the departure point in Shenyang, China. 

North Korean expert Paul Evans says anyone considering travel to the totalitarian country might first want to take stock of two things: their moral compass and their personal safety. 

North Korean soldiers march with a float showing late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung during a parade for the 70th anniversary of North Korea's founding day in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2018. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

"It's not good to pull posters off the wall or to distribute Bibles, things that have got some ... in trouble in the past,' said Evans, a professor at UBC's School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. "If you play by their rules, I think there's very little risk."

The high profile case of American tourist Otto Warmbier is a cautionary tale. 

In 2016, the college student was imprisoned in North Korea on a charge of subversion for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. Warmbier was sent home to the United States 17 month later in a vegetative state and died soon after.

Moral compass and a totalitarian regime

Evans says the moral compass issue is more complicated.

"Foreign tourists are one of the few and important sources of revenues for different organizations in North Korea, and generally for their regime," he said. "Some [tourists] are not affected by the nature of the regime and the somewhat tense atmosphere due to recent military missile and artillery tests ... and decide to go. But some, after thinking about it, decide maybe not."

North Korean men's team goalie. (Closing the Gap/Matt Reichel)

In a statement, a spokesman from Global Affairs Canada advises Canadians to avoid all travel to North Korea due to the uncertain security situation caused by its nuclear weapons development program and highly repressive regime.

"There is no resident Canadian government office in the country," said John Babcock. "The ability of Canadian officials to provide consular assistance in North Korea is extremely limited."

Inertia Network is not the first Canadian to bring hockey tourism to North Korea. Michael Spavor, one of two Canadian men currently detained in China on spying charges, organized a hockey tournament in Pyongyang in 2016. 

Reichel has traveled to North Korea dozens of times and produced a documentary film called Closing the Gap: Hockey in North Korea.

He says the country is perfectly safe if you have an understanding of the culture.

His hope is that the Pyongyang Cup and tour will foster human connections and help erase misconceptions that North Korea is dangerous country full of brainwashed people.

"A lot of people in the West think that [North Koreans] are all in this giant prison but that's just not true," said Reichel. "There's no real danger in going to North Korea as long as you're willing to abide by very simple rules."

With files from Genevieve Lasalle

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