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Kim Jong Il Bowls a 300

and Other Great Moments in North Korean Sports

What Kim Jong Un’s government has called the “hot wind of sports blowing through Korea” wasn’t just Dennis Rodman dropping by. Even as the country appears increasingly unstable, Kim, like his father and grandfather before him, has been obsessed with sports. Athletics, it turns out, have offered a rare window into the secretive country since its founding in 1948. Here, we present a historical highlight reel.

  • July 1966
    An Improbable World Cup Success

    North Korea becomes the first Asian team to advance to the quarterfinals after beating Italy 1-0 in the first round. The team’s run ends when Portugal wins 5-3 in what Time magazine calls “one of the most extraordinary games of soccer ever.”

  • August 1972
    North Korea Wins First Olympic Gold

    Ri Ho Jun sets an Olympic record in small-diameter rifle-shooting and brings home his country’s first-ever gold medal.

  • August 1982
    Tae Kwon Do Assassination Plot Foiled

    The North Korean military allegedly orders members of the International Tae Kwon Do Federation to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-Hwan. An attempt to carry out this order is foiled in Canada when Chun visits.

  • September 1988
    North Korea Boycotts Seoul Olympics

    After the International Olympic Committee refuses North Korea’s proposal to co-host the 1988 games, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea sits out the competition. North Korea also carries out terrorist attacks on the South in 1986 and 1987 in order to undermine the country’s credibility as an Olympic host.

  • May 1989
    North Korea Opens World's Largest Stadium

    With more than 150,000 seats, the May Day Stadium in Pyongyang becomes a favorite site for mass-games celebrations. In the fall of 2013, Kim Jong Un orders a renovation to honor the “undying feats” of his grandfather and father in promoting North Korean sports.

  • February 1994
    Kim Il Sung Visits the Pyongyang Gold Lane

    The new 40-lane bowling alley is described as a “patriotic donation” from a Korean businesswoman living in Japan. Later, North Korean media will report that Kim Jong Il has bowled a perfect game at Gold Lane.

  • October 1994
    Kim Jong Il Shoots 38 Under Par

    In his first round of golf ever, Kim Jong Il sinks eleven holes-in-one at the 7,700-yard, 18-hole Pyongyang Golf Club. North Korean media reports a score of 34, which would be a world record.

  • May 1997
    North Korean Giant Blocked from NBA

    The seven-foot-nine-inch North Korean center, Ri Myong Hun, flies to Canada to meet with NBA coaches. He would be the tallest player in NBA history, but the State Department blocks his signing; by the time it changes its mind, North Korea refuses to let Ri play in the United States.

  • Fall 1998
    Kim Jong Un: Michael Jordan Fanboy

    Kim Jong Un begins boarding school near Bern, Switzerland, under an assumed name. Classmates say he spends hours making detailed drawings of Michael Jordan and wears Nike Air Jordans.

  • September 2000
    The Koreas March Together at the Sydney Olympics

    In the 2000 Summer Games, athletes from both countries march side by side in the Opening Ceremonies behind the Korean Unification flag. The last-minute deal nearly falls apart because North Korea doesn’t have enough athletes.

  • October 2000
    Kim Jong Il Is Given Valuable Sports Memorabilia

    Madeleine Albright, the first senior American official to visit North Korea, gives Kim a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. The basketball is now held in the North Korean “Museum of International Understanding.”

  • 2001
    Michael Jordan Turns Down Invitation

    Optimistic, perhaps, because of the basketball, the North Korean government invites Michael Jordan to visit the country to meet Kim Jong Il. Jordan declines the invitation.

  • April 2002
    North Korea Hosts First Arirang Festival

    Mass games are held to commemorate the birthday of Kim Il Sung. The celebration includes massive dance and gymnastics performances, six days a week for two straight months.

  • March 2005
    Riots Erupt at Soccer Match Against Iran

    North Korean fans storm a Pyongyang field after a referee denies the national team a penalty in a World Cup qualifier. Riot police are called in, and the team loses 2-0. The next qualifying match is not open to the public.

  • June 2010
    World Cup Players Try to Defect

    Before the team’s opening World Cup match against Brazil—North Korea’s first Cup appearance in more than 40 years—four athletes try to bolt. After the team loses, players are “invited” to a public shaming at North Korea’s People’s Palace of Culture.

  • June 2011
    Lightning Strikes Women’s World Cup Team

    Five players on the North Korean women’s World Cup team fail a drug test—the result, North Korean officials explain, of steroids that were mistakenly ingested after lightning struck the athletes during training. The lightning strike is also offered as a reason for the team’s 2-0 loss to the United States.

  • July 2012
    London Olympics Mistakenly Waves South Korean Flag

    The North Korean women’s soccer team walks off the field after the South Korean flag is mistakenly displayed before the match. The International Olympic Committee claims the mix-up was the result of human error and has no political implications.

  • March 2013
    Dennis Rodman Visits Pyongyang

    Michael Jordan’s former teammate—another favorite of Kim Jong Un—makes his first trip to North Korea. He is sponsored by Vice Media and accompanied by several players from the Harlem Globetrotters.

  • December 2013
    Masik Pass Ski Resort Opens

    In an effort to boost North Korea’s tourism industry, the government builds ski slopes at Masik Pass with Canadian and European ski equipment—which may violate U.N. sanctions on trading luxury goods with the communist regime. Kim Jong Un is photographed on the ski lift.

  • January 2014
    Rodman Returns to Host Basketball Game

    Rodman brings six former NBA players to North Korea to play an exhibition game in honor of Kim Jong Un’s thirty-first birthday. Rodman also drunkenly shouts down a CNN anchor and accompanies Kim Jong Un on a ski trip to Masik Pass.