Lesson 98: Baduk in North Korea
Recently, two trains respectively belonging to North and South Korea crossed the DMZ for the first time in more than half a century. Also a North Korean cargo ship arrived at the port of Busan, and will carry cargoes between Busan and Rajin, three times a month from now on. These historic events raise the hope that the Baduk players of each side can more freely meet and play each other in the near future.
Even though we haven’t heard much about Baduk in North Korea, it would not be too far-fetched to say that a match between the strongest players of the two sides will be remarkable, not only in the sense of history and politics, but also in its contents. Baduk in North Korea is more advanced than is commonly expected.
The first appearance of a North Korean player in an international Baduk event was in the 13th World Amateur Go Championship in 1991. The result of this competition was not wholly satisfactory, mainly because Baduk in North Korea had been considered an undesirable pastime for long time, the same as in China. However, from that time until the year 2000, we were able to meet players from North Korea almost every year, and their results were improved amazingly, year after year.
It was in 1989 that Baduk in North Korea became a sport supported by the government, when the Joseon Baduk Association was founded under the control of the National Sports Committee. The officially recorded Baduk playing population in North Korea is about 10,000, and about 25 players are registered as national players under the association. From 1990, 17 provincial institutes have been founded, and several cities and schools have their own teams. In Pyongyang, there are several Baduk clubs called Pyongyang Baduk-won, having 20 to 30 members each.
They also have several Baduk tournaments every year, such as Pyongyang Children’s Baduk Tournament and Pyongyang Baduk Lover’s Tournament. The big matches organized on national holidays are even covered through newspapers and TV.
Perhaps your main curiosity is about the strength of North Korean players; it is incredibly high considering the shortness of their modern Baduk history. The North Korean pair teams won twice in the World Pair-Go Championship, in 2000 and 2004, and Park Hogil took 2nd place in the 22nd World Amateur Go Championship in 1999 (in South Korea, the player who wins in the World Amateur Go Championship can become a professional of the Korean Baduk Association).
There are also many female North Korean players who are stronger than male players, like Cho Sae-byeol Cho and Ko Sung-sil. This can be easily seen in the invincibility of the North Korean pair teams. The more promising aspect is that all these strong players are very young.
Nowadays, the Joseon Baduk Association has been moved under the control of the Joseon Martial Arts Federation. The players are managed by the association in the same way as other martial artists. Every year, the association sends about 10 players to China to stay and be trained by the Chinese professionals, and lets the players participate in Chinese amateur tournaments.
It is no longer wishful thinking that we would be able to see these players studying and playing in South Korea in the not-so-distant future.
The writer is a baduk professor at Myongji University and a professional player of the game.