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  • ATR First: North Korea Searches for Tokyo 2020 Training Site


    (ATR) Work is underway to to secure  North Korea a pre-Games training base in Japan ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Around the Rings Japan has learned.

    Kim Il-gook, left, and Kenshiro Matsunami, right on 30th Nov in Tokyo (ATR Japan)
    Former member of Japanese Parliament Kenshiro Matsunami, is the current President of Educational Foundation of Nippon Sport Science University. He told ATR Japan he is currently working to find a training base for North Korean athletes ahead of the 2020 Games.

    He says the task is complicated by discrimination against Koreans, historically regarded with suspicion by many Japanese.

    "In our country, almost all municipalities probably will not try to accept any North Korea athletes because Japanese people are strongly suspicious about North Korean government,” Matsunami said in an exclusive interview.

    “For example they think North Korean athletes will [act as spies]. It is a pity that Japanese government will give their citizens extraordinary security and that the relationship between Japan and North Korea will jerk instead," he said.

    Matsunami visited Pyongyang in October 2018, and met with Kim Il-gook, Sports Minister of North Korea. At that time, the NSSU made a proposal to invite North Korea's pre-games training camp to their campus in Tokyo in 2020. The NSSU has produced the most Olympic medalists in Japanese history and has high end training facilities and comfortable accommodations on campus.

    In addition, Mr. Matsunami has visited Pyongyang four times since 2012 and held football games of the NSSU and the North Korea Sport University at the Kim Il-sung Stadium, one of largest pitches in the country.

    Matsunami said North Korean minister Kim Il-gook did not definitely reply to the suggestion of the NSSU. However, when Kim visited Tokyo to attend the Association of National Olympic Committees General Assembly last November, Matsunami met with him at a restaurant in Tokyo again for 20 minutes on 30th November to make the same proposal.

    Kim also met with one active parliamentarian from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party of Japan the same day as meeting with Matsunami, ATR Japan can report for the first time.

    Nippon Sport Science University and the North Korea Sport University held football games at the Kim Il-sung Stadium of Pyongyang. 24th Oct 2018. (ATR Japan)
    Meanwhile, the NSSU was planning to invite the North Korean minister to their campus in Tokyo for inspection of their training facility and guest house, but decided to cancel on the morning of that day. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology asked the NSSU to cancel the confidential plan.

    The Japanese government allowed the North Korean minister to enter Japan for the first time in 27 years, but the government only allowed him to attend the ANOC meeting. Matsunami says he will visit Pyongyang in 2019 and intends to continue a dialogue between the NSSU and the North Korean power brokers on concrete preparations for Tokyo 2020.

     IOC President Thomas Bach, who met North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un in 2018, clearly announced in his New Year’s message, that "both (Korean) leaders asked the IOC to continue to support the ongoing Korean peninsula through sport. The IOC is committed to doing this”.

    However, even in the Japanese government, there is little appetite other than Matsunami to support North Korean athletes in the Tokyo 2020.

    Before becoming the NSSU President, Matsunami was known not only as a Japan representative for Olympic wrestling but as a diplomatic negotiator in the Japanese political community. When he was a Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2002, he contributed greatly to holding the Afghanistan Recovery and Reconstruction Conference in Tokyo. Before becoming a politician, he taught wrestling at Kabul University in Afghanistan.

    Matunami’s fourth arrival at Pyongyang International Airport.23rd Oct 2018.(ATR Japan)
    When lobbying for the Tokyo Olympic Games, Matsunami visited Pyongyang and encouraged the North Korean Sports Minister and NOC officials to provide support for Tokyo. Matsunami says Ung Chang, North Korea’s just-retired IOC member not only threw one vote to Tokyo but also installed support from three African countries.

    "In the splits of Japanese citizens, there is a strong awareness that countries that do not have diplomatic relations need to approve sports exchanges even in opponents,” Matsunami added.

    Matsunami believes a similar success diplomatically could be achieved through the Tokyo Olympics. Matsunami is fighting age and time in his endeavor. He is 72 years old and battling three types of cancer. However, he still is a leader of the biggest sports university in Japan and using his position to reach this goal.

    “In the 1960s,the dean of Aichi Institute of Technology, Shinji Goto,  brought Japanese table tennis players to China, which had no diplomatic relations and actively conducted ‘Ping-pong diplomacy’ thoroughly,” he said.

    And when opening the World Table Tennis Championships held in Nagoya in 1971, Mr. Goto sent an invitation letter to China, not [Chinese Taipei then known as the Republic of China], as Chairman of Asian Table Tennis Association. It was criticized from the right wing.

    However, as a result, Goto's decision led the championships to a great success, with the exchanges between the western teams and the Chinese one, the political leaders of the US and China approached and became the flash point for the recovery of diplomatic relations between Japan and China in 1972.”

    Written by Kenichi Tokoi in Tokyo

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