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Documentary Tells The Story Of North Korean Men's Hockey Team


The opening ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang is tomorrow. Along with competitors from around the world, the South Korean city will also host athletes from its neighbor and longtime adversary North Korea. Our next guest has been following the North Korean men's ice hockey team for years, filming them for a documentary as they played second-tier competition like New Zealand and Mexico and Turkey. The team ultimately did not qualify for the Olympics, but filmmaker Matt Reichel says this makes sense because hockey has remained in a bubble in North Korea since it was first introduced.

MATT REICHEL: Hockey entered North Korea through the Chinese and the Soviets back in the '50s along with tons of other winter sports - figure skating, speedskating - all that stuff came in from the Soviet Union. So they were able to participate in these sporting events that the Soviet Union was organizing around their sphere of influence.

INSKEEP: Reichel tells our co-host Rachel Martin that despite North Korea being a dictatorship, he did not face a lot of constraints when making his film.

REICHEL: We have free rein in a really limited space. We wanted to really just look at, you know, hockey in North Korea. It's not a big deal. I mean, we're talking, you know, old stadium, old ripped pads, old skates. Like, everything is not, you know, shiny and new. It's not that marble palace that you see that North Korea loves to present to foreigners.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: And the regime is fine with you portraying this grittier, more realistic portrayal of a segment of North Korean society than it would choose to project itself?

REICHEL: In terms of organization, the regime is less centralized. It's hard to define what the regime means in North Korea. They have a central ideology. But it's more of a - it is a system we like to call, like - there's fog in North Korea. You don't really know what any other side is doing. It's not like there's some central authority that meddles in everything in the state. And people have asked us - well, can you get in their homes? We're like, no, we can't because we're not - that's not part of our - kind of our access. Once we leave...

MARTIN: That's not the deal.

REICHEL: That's not the deal. Once we leave our zone, we're kind - we get curtailed really fast.

MARTIN: I'd like to ask you about one of the players who's featured prominently in the film. It's the star forward, Hong Chun Rim. What can you tell us about him?

REICHEL: He's one of the best players on the team. His family is from Pyongyang, which is interesting 'cause most of the players on the team - on the national team and on the club teams - they're countryside.

MARTIN: This guy's a city guy?

REICHEL: He's a city guy. His family is from Pyongyang, and he goes right for the puck. So in New Zealand, he was one of the guys that got really injured, unfortunately. He broke his arm and still wanted to get back on the ice. He had just had a hat trick on the game before, so they did need him. But he had a broken arm, so he was not getting back on the ice.

MARTIN: In the course of these interviews and getting to know these guys, did you get a sense of what their daily life is like for themselves and for their families - and because they travel, because they see what the outside world is like, if that information has caused them to rethink how life is in North Korea?

REICHEL: At the end of the day, I think a lot of these guys - what they care about is their families, their kids, like being able to - especially for the countryside players - being able to move their families to Pyongyang, being able to take care of their parents better. To be able to put them in a condo where they have 24 hours of electricity - that would be a big deal. Centralized heating - that would be a big deal, especially for a countryside family but even for a Pyongyang family.

MARTIN: Could they make it to a future Winter Olympics?

REICHEL: With a lot of coaching help and training, they could theoretically do it.

MARTIN: (Laughter) You didn't sound convinced.


REICHEL: Well, it would take a lot. I think they're ranked, like, 38th globally, so it'd have to come a long way.

MARTIN: Matt Reichel - he is making a documentary film about ice hockey in North Korea. He's making it with an organization called Inertia Network. Hey, Matt, thanks so much for talking with us about your film.

REICHEL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.