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A Dutch coach wants to build a soccer center in North Korea

South Korea's players toss their Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, in the air in celebration on June 29, 2002, at the World Cup Stadium in Daegu, South Korea, after their surprise fourth-place finish in the World Cup.
Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

Dutch soccer coach Guus Hiddink, who led South Korea's national soccer team to the 2002 World Cup semifinals, is headed to North Korea this week with plans to build sports facilities inside the sealed country.

He's a beloved sports figure in South Korea, and wants to build grounds for futsal — a variation of soccer — for visually impaired athletes, NK News reported. Hiddink, who heads his own foundation, has already built more than a dozen futsal grounds for visually impaired young athletes in South Korea.

Hiddink isn't the first sports celebrity to reach out to the isolated nation. In 2013, former NBA star Dennis Rodman traveled to the country to hang court side with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Hiddink also led the Chelsea Football Club prior in his career.

Kim Jong Un and Dennis Rodman at a basketball game in North Korea in February 2013
Source: HBO

"Sports and cultural exchanges between the two Koreas have been important, and the two sides can seem to occasionally put aside their differences to engage in sports diplomacy," said Jennifer Jung-Kim, a Korea expert and lecturer in Korean history at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Leader Kim, in fact, has made sports a new focus of his government.

Kim, who has bemoaned that the north is trailing the world in sports science and strategy, has imported foreign coaches and trainers, as noted by Marcus Noland, a North Korea expert and author of the blog, "Witness to Transformation."

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Inside a North Korean black market
Inside a North Korean black market

So does sports diplomacy ultimately work?

While there have been collaborations between the north and south at prior Asian and Olympic games, the events have yielded little diplomatic progress. "Sport can play a role in diplomacy. But frankly, it has not played much of a role in Korea," said Noland, also executive vice president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

In the end, more significant change inside North Korea may come from market forces.

Growing North Korea markets

A recent white paper from the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) includes research that used Google Earth's "yardstick" function and satellite imagery to measure the growth of markets in 12 cities. The study was released last month, and led by Ben Silberstein, a researcher and expert on the North Korean economy.

Markets, sometimes called black markets, have flourished in number and size in North Korea's capital Pyongyang and smaller cities. A key trigger was a massive famine in the 1990s that killed around 2 million people, though estimates vary widely. The country became unable to feed its own people, and the markets became an established source of food and income.

Silberstein found that markets grew in all cities analyzed, although in most cases the growth has been marginal and the result of restructuring or minor enlargements. Plus, periods of market repression by the government, including from 2009 to 2010, have not triggered smaller market sizes as observable through satellite imagery.

Market spaces and their sizes were measured from around the mid-2000s to roughly 2013 and 2014.

Cities with large market-size gains included seaport cities close to China. And such key cross-border trade flows between China and North Korea may be giving select local government officials greater autonomy and flexibility when it comes to market policies.

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