North Korea has attracted attention after it recently featured a number of corporate advertisements in a preliminary match of the 2018 Russian World Cup.
In the past, North Korea rejected everything related to capitalism. But since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power it appears to be actively using sports and commercial capital in order to attract foreign capital as its market economy rapidly expands.
On June 16, 2015 Korean Central Television (KCTV) broadcast the second match of the Russian World Cup Asian qualifying rounds. The match, in which North Korea and Uzbekistan played, was held at Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Stadium, where advertisements by North Korean companies such as Kaesong Koryo Ginseng and the Pyongyang Building Materials Factory appeared in force. Kaesong Koryo Ginseng and Choson Kumgang Group in particular appeared to have spent a lot of money sponsoring the event, as every most ads belonged to one of these companies. Conspicuous among the advertisements were those from companies that have not been well-known in the outside world, such as Malgun Achim (literally ‘clear morning’), a manufacturing company known in North Korea for producing IT products such as computers. Exhibiting numerous ads for North Korean companies at an international sports event and broadcasting the event on TV to the world is rather unprecedented behavior for North Korea.
When the 27th Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon was held in Pyongyang in 2014, not only were there no ads for North Korean companies, but there were no ads for foreign companies either. As a result British contestant Will Phillips, who qualified to participate in the marathon as a foreign amateur athlete, remarked at the time, “It feels like time just stopped in the ‘60s.” However, an article appeared in the January 2015 edition of the Kim Il Sung University Bulletin that emphasized the importance of advertisements in attracting investment and gave specific instructions to heed the publication times of major foreign newspapers and even pay attention to broadcast ratings. Since then North Korea has paid attention to foreign advertisements and has really upped its efforts to attract foreign currency.
As the market economy spreads rapidly in the Kim Jong Un era, this event is viewed as a sign of change in North Korea’s foreign economic policy. The promotion of North Korean companies in a preliminary round of the World Cup, which relatively many foreigners can view, is interpreted as an attempt to ultimately attract foreign capital. At the same time, it appears there is a dimension of inducing competition between North Korean companies to boost domestic demand. This event can also be connected to one of the characteristics of the Kim Jong Un regime, which emphasizes and encourages physical education throughout the state. Such a scene, which seamlessly joins sports with commercial capitalism, is unprecedented for North Korea.