SEOUL — As the Summer Olympics come to a close in London, another sports match up gets underway on the other side of the globe.
The game is Ultimate, it is a mix of American style football and basketball using a frisbee. The host is Pyongyang. It is the second time that the North Korean capital has held what is being called a peace tournament, but the event has drawn criticism.
Ultimate is not an Olympic sport. But, it has a following around the world and some hope that includes North Korea. The Second Pyongyang Ultimate Peace Tournament is sponsored by Beijing-based Koryo Tours, an organization that has brought other sports exchanges to North Korea, including cycling, football (soccer) and cricket.
In 2011, during the first tournament, around 60 people took part in the game. They were mostly Western tourists, members of Pyongyang’s small expat community and some North Koreans working for the state-run tourism department.
Andray Abrahamian, who helped develop the tournament with Koryo Tours, says participants are attracted by the unique locale.
"North Korea is shrouded in such mystery that I think it is an attractive destination for adventure travelers," he said. "The idea of introducing a sport that they are obsessed with to a country that has never seen, it is also quite attractive."
Abrahamian is also the director of the Choson Exchange, a non-government organization involved in development work with North Korea. He says Ultimate teaches certain values of fair play and sportsmanship that can help build trust between Westerners and North Koreans, people who normally consider each other as enemies.
But critics of the North Korean government say these types of exchanges give a false impression that Pyongyang really is interested in opening up to the outside world.
"Such activities have conditioned us to be optimistic and give to North Korea while North Korea has taken advantage of the outside world's cash and expectations," said Lee Sung-yoon, who lectures in Korean Studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts.
Lee says Pyongyang uses tourism as just another way of bringing in foreign currency for the nation’s elite.
The Choson Exchange’s Andray Abrahamian acknowledges that working within North Korea’s opaque system presents challenges. But, he says, after seeing how players in last year’s frisbee tournament got along on the field, he believes sports can help improve relations.
"This is just one tiny contribution to the normalizing of interactions between North Koreans and foreigners. So I hope both Koreans and visitors can come away with perhaps a slightly softened attitude toward one another as people," he said.
The tournament is set to get underway Saturday.