Skateboarding appearing in the most unlikely of places.
Of all the countries in the world that you’d think least likely to adopt skateboarding, North Korea would have to be one of them. Supreme leader Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors have made no secret of their distaste for America over the course of recent history, so the fact that they thought it would be OK to throw together a skate park (first unveiled in November 2012) seems, at the very least, a little odd. Selling Oreos in your supermarkets and getting Dennis Rodman round for dinner is one thing, but this is another thing entirely. This is skateboarding.
North Korea is the country in which an estimated 150,000-200,000 people live in prison work camps. In which citizens are forced to choose from one of 28 approved haircuts*, some six million people are in need of food, an estimated total of three million people have died from famine and the west and everything it represents are demonized in propaganda and regularly threatened with the sharp end of a nuclear missile. There’s also no internet as we know it, just a closed internal intranet system where civilians have no real way of contacting the outside world. And if they ever try and escape North Korea and get caught, they may be liable to be executed.
construction of the skatepark in pyongyang, north korea
If North Korea thinks they can build a skate park and not have the global skate community ask a big fat collective, “WHAT THE FUCK?” they’ve got another thing coming. And after watching this YouTube video of a handful of North Koreans rolling around in their bizarre red and blue boiler suits a few months ago, I wanted to see if I could get hold of one. Of course, I am an idiot.
The South Korean skate scene seemed like as good a place to start as any. I was aware they had little to no contact with the North, but I thought some stories might have come across the border. I was wrong. Ryan Saley, co-owner of South Korea’s largest skateboard distributor, Kadence Distribution, spelled it out. “We’re pretty tight with the entire scene here and I have never heard of any skaters that have come from North Korea,” said Ryan, a Canadian living in South Korea with his Korean wife. “I think it’s pretty safe to say there are probably none.” Disheartening, yes. But with the image of the jumpsuit-clad skateboarders firmly in my mind, and confirmation from a North Korean tour operator that skateboarders really exist out there, I persisted.
Seeing as the skateboarders geographically closest to North Korea couldn’t help. I decided to see who I could get in touch with from the Korean Friendship Association (KFA) – the country’s main point of contact for those of us in the outside world. After several emails back and forth, it was clear that it really would be impossible for me to talk to anyone from inside North Korea, let alone a skateboarder. For now, these government-types would have to do.
I asked Dermot Hudson, the Korean Friendship Association Official Delegate from the UK, why North Korea would bother with a skate park when they’re so anti-America. “Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un is opposed to US imperialism and its interference in Korea,” replied the 52-year-old, who does this North Korea stuff voluntarily. “This does not mean anything originating in America should be rejected out of hand. The Juche idea, whilst stressing the importance of one’s own culture does not reject taking positive aspects from other cultures and assimilating them.”
I sent Dermot a video of Daewon Song, pointed out the fact that he’s Korean-American and asked if his skills are something that North Korean skateboarders might aspire to. “The DPRK will adapt skateboarding to its own style,” he began. “So it will be a Juche-oriented Korean style of skateboarding. I would say the style shown in the video would not be emulated in the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]. South Korean culture has always been a copy of the US and to some extent Japan.” Don’t take it personally, Daewon.
I searched the web high and low for all the information I could find on skateboarding in North Korea and as it happens, there isn’t much. I did manage to stumble across an article on the subject written entirely in Russian. My excitement peaked because I thought that for some reason these Russians would know more than I did. I was wrong. Again. Most of the article was incoherent and dismissible. The following sentence, a word-for-word translation, actually made my brain fall over. “In general, the thrill of skateboarding in North Korea is about the same as from the tincture of the penises of fur seals – doubtful.” Clearly either Google translate was fucking with me, or the Russians were.
With little in the way of facts from South Korea, Dermot, Russia, or my mate Dom who’s been to North Korea, I had no choice but to go to the top. Or at least as close to the top as a guy armed with a painfully slow internet connection can get.
Alejandro Cao de Benós de Les y Pérezis is the Special Delegate for the Committee for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries, as well as the President of the KFA. We’ll just call him Al. He’s a Spanish IT consultant who has dedicated his life to North Korea and the Juche political ideology. He’s even got his own Wikipedia page and UK newspaper, The Independent, went as far as to dub him “North Korea’s secret weapon”. Credentials? Al’s got them.
Naturally, when faced with an interview subject of such caliber, rather than ask him about the country’s more pressing issues, I asked him why it’s important for North Korea to have a skate park. “Because inline and ice skating are very popular sports,” replied Al, whilst simultaneously making me regret pursuing this wild-goose chase. Still, he did tell me that the park is used every day and reaches max capacity on weekends and holidays. I wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth, but it was enough to hold my interest.
According to Al, skateboarding is beneficial to North Koreans for health, concentration and domain of the body, which is the most sense I got out of anyone throughout this whole ordeal. Still, he wasn’t able to help me find a North Korean skateboarder, so I set about asking him if he thought it was hypocritical for North Korea to despise America but pick and choose bits of its culture to use in their own. “America is despised for its criminality, imperialism, corruption and decadent values,” began Al, ever so triumphantly. “This has nothing to do with sports or Intel Processors, that are also made in USA and used in many computers of DPRK.” I wasn’t sure if it was the countless emails Al failed to reply to or the mention of Intel Processors that made me give up on him, but I did.
Al did leave me with one burning question, though. If the park was indeed reaching “max capacity”, as he had claimed, where was the product coming from? Patrik Walner – a filmmaker and photographer who’d ventured to North Korea once in 2010 (with Kenny Reed) and again in 2012 on skate missions seemed to have an idea (or at the very least, an educated guess). “They got [skateboards] through the Chinese black market,” he told me. “I think the facility bought a couple boards for the kids to push around, but I don’t think they care enough about skateboarding to make products there.”
future north korean boards?
In a strange turn of events, when I put the same questions to Dermot, he seemed to have a slightly different opinion on the future of skateboarding in North Korea. “I am not sure where the skateboards come from,” he began, “but I am sure that the DPRK will be producing them soon if they are not already.” So, there’s a chance North Korea are either gearing up to take – or are already tucking into – their slice of the skateboarding pie. Cool.
Given the above evidence, predicting the future of North Korean skateboarding is about as easy as predicting the future of North Korea. Perhaps the guys in red and blue jumpsuits were just trained actors and the skate park is some kind of PR stunt (it wouldn’t be North Korea’s first). Perhaps nobody in North Korea will ever really know what a skateboard is.
But if they are the real deal, there’s surely going to come a point when they get bored of their tic-tacs. And when that time comes, they might start getting creative. All we can do is wait patiently for footage of the first “Juche-orientated Korean-style” skateboarder and – if Dermot’s hunch is right – the first North Korean skateboard company. Whatever happens, you know it’s going to be really, really weird.
*On reflection, only allowing 28 styles of haircut seems pretty lenient. I think I’ve only had four during the course of my life. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with a choice of 28. “I’ll have what he’s having,” that’d be my line. Play it safe.