The politics of sport and identity in North Korea

Udo Merkel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Sixty years after the end of the Korean War (1950 – 1953), the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea still face each other across the highly fortified Demilitarised Zone along the thirty-eighth parallel on the Korean peninsula. Since then, both Korean states have always proclaimed eventual unification of the divided people as a high-priority political objective. However, due to a large number of insurmountable political barriers, the reunification of the two nations is unlikely to happen in the near future. Nevertheless, both Korean governments continue to maintain and reinforce a pan-Korean identity amongst its respective populations. At the same time, there is a need for both states to provide its respective citizens with a distinct national identity. Although identity is not monolithic and does not have to have a single focus, offering both a pan-Korean identity and a distinctive national identity requires a delicate balancing act. The focus of this paper is on the politics of sport and identity, and the above-mentioned balancing act, in North Korea, primarily in the aftermath of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. It analyses the symbolic potency of sport in the context of identity narratives on the divided Korean peninsula. For this paper, North Korea’s complex identity management strategies and discourses have been observed and analysed in three very different contexts: in everyday life in Pyongyang, the country’s capital; in local events, such as the spectacular North Korean mass games; and in the context of international events, such as the most recent Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)376-390
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of the History of Sport
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2014


  • divided societies
  • North Korea
  • identity discourses
  • pan\-Koreanness
  • reunification


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