June 16th, 2011
01:56 PM ET

Taekwondo tour a chance to show the 'real North Korean'

Queens, New York, is one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the world. But one nation’s visitors still managed to raise a few eyebrows: North Koreans were in town.

An elite taekwondo team came for a three-city tour, the second of its kind organized by an American taekwondo magazine. The 11 performers were accompanied by several coaches and government minders, each with Kim Jong Il lapel pins affixed to their ill-fitting suits.

“I think whenever we share things with other people, it's a good thing. Especially when we share something that we love,” said Tina Pagano, an organizer of the event.

The primary motivation of the trip was to give an elite team the chance to perform for a new audience. The United States is home to the most practitioners of taekwondo in the world, according to George Vitale, who helped organize the event.

But for two countries that have no diplomatic relations, this visit was clearly about more than just sports. In what must certainly be a rare occurrence, American and North Korean flags hung side-by-side above the gym where the team performed.

Woojin Jung, the publisher of Taekwondo Times and a driving force behind the tour, wrote on the website for the tour that he hoped “to establish a peaceful relationship between the U.S. and North Korea through a nonpolitical exchange.”

To some, like spectator Jeff Dunn, the demonstration was foremost an occasion to see great taekwondo.

“I've seen the South Korea team perform, and I heard they're the best,” Dunn said before the demonstration. “But now I heard from a few Korean friends that North Korea's demonstration team is supposed to be superior. And these guys live on rice and water.”

To others, like South Korean immigrant Kristie Lloyd, the visit had deeper implications.

“I didn't suffer the Korean civil war. But I like to know,” said Lloyd, who came to the Queens demonstration with her elderly mother. “I like to see the real North Korean,” she said. “Are they real people? Regular like us?”

Vitale said that while governments are responsible for implementing policy, “it's the people on the ground that actually are the connection that makes it happen.”

With this goal clearly in the minds of the organizers, the team was given a chance to interact with American attendees before the demonstration in front of a crowd of about 300.

The athletes were friendly but had a definite air of detachment and wariness of too much intimacy.

On a field near the Queens College gym where they performed, the North Koreans gave a short class, holding up wooden boards and lending their expertise to novices and black belts alike.

“It's just a once-in-a-lifetime, that they're here in New York for the first time,” said Jamie Cohen, who attended with her husband and two sons. “My boys eat, breathe, sleep taekwondo. They love it. So it's a great opportunity for them to see this.”

Even American athletes are often wary of speaking to the media, so it was unclear what kind of access reporters would be given to the North Korean team. A few athletes and coaches did speak, through interpreters, but were clearly wary of giving anything more than boilerplate answers about their love for taekwondo and their home country.

They did express optimism about the tour’s ability to promote better relations between the United Sates and North Korea, but became flustered when asked anything related to the politics of their home country.

After a short interview with the athletes, a government minder made sure to emphasize that the “dear leader” Kim Jong Il loves taekwondo and takes good care of the team.

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Filed under: New York • North Korea
soundoff (25 Responses)
  1. christina

    i think it was a good idea doing this tour and i think they areamazing in there fighting skills.

    June 16, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Cesar

    Meant, schitt lots of that going around.

    June 16, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Paul B

    Was this like the World Cup where the fans who ere sent to watch were really actors hired from China?

    June 16, 2011 at 10:01 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Name

    The real North Korea is lead by a crazy dictator who wants to nuke the united states.

    June 17, 2011 at 12:06 am | Report abuse |
  5. banasy


    You *are* a fool. Nobody has to post anything to know that.

    June 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  6. gonggu


    January 1, 2012 at 5:47 am | Report abuse |
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