Pucks Over Pyongyang is the first ever in-depth hockey training, playing and service project in North Korea. It is specifically designed to serve as a bridge to connect everyday people on and off the ice.
We believe sports can build trust and show how individuals have the potential to shift perspectives and make a difference in each others’ lives. Hockey is our tool for engaging North Korean people, working closely with communities there, and moving the debate from politics to people.
Our team has worked with the Korean Ice Hockey Association and DPRK Ministry of Sports for the past four years, and we’ve been to North Korea over 50 times. We’ve produced a feature documentary looking at the lives and aspirations of rural North Korean hockey players, and now we’re opening up our access to interested individuals who would also like to engage this mysterious country. Come meet the team.
- Play in Pyongyang's first North Korean-International mixed-team tournament and vie for the Pyongyang Cup with players from the DPRK men's and women's national teams.
- Participate in coaching and training sessions with North Korean hockey players, kids, and under 18 players.
- Conduct a service project with a school in rural North Korea.
- Join in on a Winter Sports Day at a local middle school.
- Spend time with North Korean hockey players outside the rink-- go bowling, sing karaoke, and share meals together.
- Explore North Korea's capital city of Pyongyang, as well as a countryside city known for hockey.
(subject to change)
Day 1. Friday, March 20, 2020. Arrive in Shenyang, China
Everyone meets at our hotel in Shenyang, China for a group dinner followed by orientation and a safety briefing.
Day 2. Saturday, March 21, 2020. Shenyang / Dandong / Pyongyang
We depart very early in the morning for the Chinese-North Korean border city of Dandong, located an hour away by bullet train. Once we arrive in Dandong, we proceed through Chinese immigration and customs and board our train bound for Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. After crossing the Yalu River separating China from the DPRK, we clear DPRK customs and immigration at Sinuiju Railway Station, our train will continue onto Pyongyang, arriving around 6pm in the evening. We meet our North Korean coordinating team upon our arrival and will share in a welcome dinner all together.
Day 3. Sunday, March 22, 2020. Pyongyang
Today is Sunday, and thus a rest day in North Korea. This is the perfect opportunity to get ourselves acquainted with the city and get over jet lag. We can walk around the downtown core, take the metro to new neighbourhoods, try out some local restaurants and for those interested, they can visit the mausoleum where Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state. We’ll also visit the Mansudae Grand Monument today. In the evening, everyone will gather for a bonding activity downtown.
Day 4. Monday, March 23, 2020. Pyongyang
Hockey training camp begins bright and early. After breakfast, we walk over to Pyongyang’s Ice Arena to meet with the men’s and women’s national team players, coaches and staff. There, we’ll coach and train with the teams for an hour each, followed by a half hour meet and greet session to allow everyone to start to get to know each other in smaller break-out groups. Each small group has lunch together at a nearby restaurant (walking distance). In the afternoon, a friendly game is hosted at the Ice Arena where everyone will get the opportunity to play, followed by a coaching meeting with the local coaches and staff. We can visit the Juche Tower to watch sunset over the city in the evening before a group dinner.
Day 5. Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Pyongyang
Today begins with a youth training exercise with the children and youth players from the Taesongsan Sports Club, followed by training with the men’s and women’s national teams. In the afternoon, we host a second mixed team friendly game at the Ice Arena, as well as go for a skate at the public ice skating park in Pyongyang. Tonight, we have dinner with the players and coaches at a local restaurant.
Day 6. Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Pyongyang / Samjiyon
Today, we take an early morning charter flight from Pyongyang to the northern town of Samjiyon. Located in rural Ryanggang Province, Samjiyon is near Mount Paektu, the highest peak in Korea and the subject of many legends. It is also believed in North Korea that Kim Jong Il was born near the foot of the mountain in a secret guerrilla camp. There, we will visit the local rink and play a friendly with the local players, many of whom come from northern club teams and spend the winter practicing in the town. Time and conditions allowing, we may visit Mount Paektu in the afternoon.
Day 7. Thursday, March 26, 2020. Samjiyon / Hyesan / Samjiyon
We venture south to the city of Hyesan (pending approval) to meet with students at the athletic school. Hyesan is one of the few cities in the DPRK that has hockey in their athletic education curriculum (the others being Pyongyang and Kanggye). We visit the classrooms, local sports facilities, and help implement a service project aimed at promoting education and skills development for rural children. We play a demonstration game and workshop with the students at the school. Time allowing, we can visit a few local places in Hyesan before driving back to Samjiyon for the night.
Day 8. Friday, March 27, 2020. Samjiyon / Pyongyang
We take a morning charter flight back to Pyongyang. After lunch, we return back to the Ice Arena for our team draft and first round games of the Pyongyang Cup Tournament. The winning teams will go on to compete tomorrow for the Pyongyang Cup. Following the games, teams get a chance to strategize and bond over a meal at the ice arena.
Day 9. Saturday, March 28, 2020. Pyongyang
It’s the day of the finals— and a winner will be awarded the Pyongyang Cup. Ice will be made available for practice in the morning and the afternoon final is open to the public. After the game, we head to Golden Lanes bowling to share in some different memories with the players, followed by a dinner all together and karaoke party.
Day 10. Sunday, March 29, 2020. Pyongyang / Dandong / Shenyang
We bid farewell to our hosts and depart Pyongyang in the morning by train, bound for the Chinese border. We arrive in China in the late afternoon, after clearing DPRK exit and Chinese entry procedures and transfer trains to the city of Shenyang. We have a dinner planned in the city and reflection session to help everyone make some sense of their experience and share their feelings and stories about what this week has meant to them.
Day 11. Monday, March 30, 2020. Depart from Shenyang, China.
Departures from Shenyang Airport throughout the day. No scheduled activities.
Is travelling to North Korea safe?
The DPRK has a more unusual safety and security situation than most countries. While many Western nations have travel warnings and economic sanctions in place against the DPRK, it remains a safe place to visit as long as you are aware of the countries rules and political customs.
Political Crimes and Detentions
There is essentially no violent crime, and even pickpocketing is extremely rare. However, most issues foreigners may find themselves in the country are political in nature and the greatest risks include being detained by the authorities for accidentally or intentionally committing a political crime. Every foreigner arrested or detained in North Korea broke DPRK rules; their arrests, while unfortunate, were not arbitrary.
Always remember the Kim family, the Korean Workers’ Party, and National Symbols are held to the utmost respect; any political poster, image, slogan, and book is treated as holy. Touching, standing on, imitating, or damaging any of these politically holy images or statues will certainly result in problems. Punishments may range from having to write a formal apology letter to arrest, extended detainment, and hard labour.
The second type of crime foreigners have been arrested for is proselytization. While the DPRK constitution officially allows for freedom of religion, in practice, this is not the case. Foreigners may not proselytize in any way in North Korea. While religious items like Bibles are allowed into the country for personal use, they may not be shown to any North Korean, or distributed locally for that matter. The same goes for politically sensitive materials, books, films and media.
Media and Sensitive Materials
The third type of issue many foreigners may run into is carrying sensitive media and materials into the country that are critical of the regime. All media, including books, laptops, electronic readers, magazines, etc must be declared upon arrival in the country, and Korean language content is particularly sensitive. If these materials incriminate you as an individual, you can easily find yourself detained at the borders, where laptops, cell phones, books and hard drives may be checked by customs officers. It’s best to leave all media materials at home; it’s certainly not worth the risk of bringing it into North Korea.
Illegal Entry and Visa Tampering
The last major issue foreigners have run into has been illegal entry or destruction of visa materials. Just don’t do it. If you are going to go, then go legally, with a visa, and do not tamper with your official entry documents and certainly do not illegally cross a border into North Korea.
How to Stay Safe
As with any country, you need to be aware of basic North Korean laws and customs. This will help secure your safety while in the country. Make sure to treat all political destinations and materials with respect or at the very least sensitivity and avoid overtly political discussions in public and in private in the country. The vast majority of foreign tourists travel to and return home from North Korea without incident.
Does this program fund the North Korean regime?
This depends on how you want to define the regime.
Do tourism dollars reach the highest levels of the North Korean political elite? No, not directly anyway. There is currently no tourism operator in North Korea run under those groups; they have their own businesses that are used for financial gain in far more lucrative sectors (tourism only accounts for around 0.3% of North Korea’s GDP).
But does it fund the operations of some middle-level political ministries? Absolutely. The reality is you cannot trace all the funds completely, but you can obtain a more nuanced idea of where it goes if you dissect the system and connections between these domestic groups.
So where does the money go? For this program we work with the Ministry of Sports, the Korean Ice Hockey Association, and the Korea International Sports Travel Company. A good chunk of the finances are left in their control, but we also pay hotels, fund our service project, eat in restaurants, buy train and event tickets, etc. North Korea may have a planned economy without any official private enterprises, but that does not mean everything is centrally controlled by the State. Rather the opposite is true, each one of these organizations is incredibly independent and competitive with one another.
How is the money spent? Well, just like in any other country, tourist dollars go to hotels, restaurants, and activities. Each location we visit, including the Ice Arena, for example, earns a piece of the financial pie, as we must pay them for each visit. All of these organizations and sites employ people and need funds to operate. In this regard, revenue from tourism is quite widely spread in North Korea, and this trend is only continuing as more tourism operators keep growing domestically.
How is this program even possible?
The reason that this program is even possible is due to the long operational history and track record of the program’s founders— Matt Reichel, Sunny Hahm and Han Ju Hak. This Canadian-DPRK team of individuals has been working together for a decade on joint exchange projects and more specifically producing a feature documentary film on North Korean ice hockey called Closing the Gap.
Our connections developed with the Korean Ice Hockey Association, Ministry of Sports, and the players and athletes themselves run deep— as we’ve been working with them regularly over the past four years. We even travelled to New Zealand with the team to document their journey and help them along the way— from broken bones and hospital visits to running around Auckland in a rented van looking for kimchi.
It is through these relations and the trust we’ve built up over the years that we can run this program and offer a truly unique insight into this sliver of North Korean society.
How experienced is the team running this program?
Co-founders Matt Reichel and Sunny Hahm are two Canadians who have a rich experience working in North Korea.
Matt has travelled to the country over 40 times within the last ten years, has developed exchange, educational, tourism, humanitarian, sport and film projects and is an expert on North Korea society and politics. Matt is also a fluent Mandarin speaker, which is quite useful in the North Korean business world.
Sunny has been working on projects in North Korea since 2014 and has visited the country over 5 times. He’s a fluent Korean speaker and is very capable of smoothing things over with North Koreans from all walks of life.
The North Korean team is lead by Han Ju Hak and his team, they have worked with Inertia co-founders since 2009 on dozens of projects and have a flawless track record. The team brings knowledge, passion and skill when undertaking projects. We could not have asked for a better, more capable, more professional and understanding team.
Are there really hockey players in North Korea?
Yes. In North Korea today, there are around 1,200 hockey players, including youth players. Professionally, there are six club teams in Pyongyang (3 men’s teams and 3 women’s teams), as well as two rural clubs from Chagang Province. All in all, there are around 150 professional, full-time hockey players in North Korea.
North Koreans have been playing hockey since the sport was introduced by Russian soldiers and advisers in the 1950s. They joined the IIFH in 1964. Both the men's and women's national teams participate in the annual IIHF tournaments.
Are interactions with locals scripted?
No. The interactions you’ll be having with the locals on this program are completely genuine, and that’s what makes it incredibly unique. Most tourists only visit sites and museums and have conversations just with their guides. This program is all about having conversations and connecting with hockey players, students, staff, coaches and more. It is neither scripted nor staged.
What about at tourist sites? Mostly untrue. Major tourist sites and monuments are extremely sterile and well-organized, as they honour the State Ideology and Leadership, and are pilgrimage locations for local people. There are strict scripts presented by local guides at these locations for visitors to hear the State’s version of their importance; these are more targeted at local visitors than foreign tourists.
Local people are not added to any location to make it seem more full or functional to foreigners. North Korea does not have the resources to possibly do this. Local people visiting major pilgrimage sites are mostly organized into groups by their work unit, so it may seem like it’s set up, but rather, they have to be organized into groups in order to visit these sites of national importance.
Other than that, people on the streets and villages are just going about their lives and are not “placed” there to entertain foreign tourists. There are “model” communities that the government likes to promote, so many of the farms, factories, and cooperatives visited by tour groups are not representative of the average, rather, they are representative of the ideal.
Can we go out on our own?
The simple answer to this question is no. Independent travel is not allowed for short term visitors in North Korea. We are accompanied by our team, guides and local representatives at all times.
If you want to go on a run or walk around the city in the mornings, this is totally acceptable, but one staff member must accompany you.
Why is this the rule? Well, we certainly have our suspicions of course, but it’s just the way it is for now.
Where do we sleep?
While in Pyongyang, we stay in a local hotel downtown called the Changgwangsan (otherwise affectionately called “the chang’ers” for short). The hotel is located a two minute walk from the Ice Arena, and about a five minute drive from Pyongyang’s central railway station. The rooms are decently nice, with double beds, a television that receives about 9 international stations, floor heating, their own bathrooms and showers, a desk and a balcony. The hotel also has a traditional Korean bath house, swimming pool, import supermarket, and gift shop inside.
When travelling outside of Pyongyang, we will stay at smaller local hotels with fewer amenities. Electricity outages are common at night. All of these hotels are all safe.
It is safe to assume that areas where foreigners and North Koreans congregate may be bugged. This includes hotel restaurants and bars in particular.
What happens in the case of an emergency?
In the case of a medical emergency, we have two major resources at our disposal. One is to use the Red Cross clinic, which has foreign trained doctors (used by UN and International Embassy staff in Pyongyang), and doctors are able to make house calls to the hotel if needed. For more serious issues, a medivac may be needed. This may be arranged through our team on the ground with the assistance of the Swedish Embassy.
Special medical insurance may be required to have these costs covered. Please contact us to learn more about insurance providers who offer actual coverage in North Korea.
Our team carries International SIM cards while in North Korea and we keep the contact details of the Swedish, UK and German embassies handy if ever needed.
Can I use my phone / internet in North Korea?
You are welcome to bring your phone into North Korea, but your SIM card will not work unless you purchase a local DPRK SIM card. These are available at Pyongyang International Airport, the Potonggang Hotel lobby, and the Korea Communications Centre (KCC). The KCC is the easiest place to obtain and register your DPRK SIM card. A valid passport and DPRK visa are needed to get a local SIM.
Local DPRK SIM cards available for foreigners are able to make overseas calls and texts, as well as call other foreigners’ numbers in the DPRK. They cannot call local numbers nor the cell phone of locals. 3G internet is available over the mobile network. It is, however, prohibitively expensive for most visitors— starting around $250 for activation and initial gigabyte. After then, 100mbs cost about $15.
In an emergency, emails may be sent from several hotel lobbies and if absolutely needed we can go to one of the foreign embassies (Sweden, UK, Brazil, Germany, etc) if internet access is a must-have.
How much does it cost and what’s included?
We are still working through the numbers for this program and will post a fee soon. We anticipate this number to be in the $2500-$3000 USD range.
The program fee includes the following: all transportation starting and ending in Shenyang, China; all meals; all activities; all entrance fees; all accommodations; guides and staff; event fees; service project costs; and DPRK visa fees.
It excludes the following: medical and travel insurance (required); gear and equipment (rentals are not available, you must bring your own), alcoholic drinks, personal spending, activities and or events outside the itinerary.