A Pyongyang Home
Companion No.4:
Volleyball

A national pastime in Korea

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. - William of Occam

Volleyball is likely the most commonly played sport in the DPRK. Played by both ‘men and women, old and young’ (남녀로소), permanent and semi-permanent volleyball courts exist in parks, schoolyards, army base parade grounds, summer camps, resorts, and parking lots throughout the country. All one needs is a ball, net, and two posts. These days volleyballs are made domestically. Playing on concrete never stopped anyone.

At larger Korean work units, teams are arranged by department and gender. For instance, men and women’s teams could exist for office workers, grounds staff, drivers, etc. A core group of skilled individuals often make up the nucleus of a team and practice regularly. Talented players often teach potential alternatives chosen from the remainder of the staff. The volleyball skill level of staff is often common knowledge around the office.

On or around Korean holidays, tournaments are often organised between departments. Tournaments are also arranged for activities such as table tennis, football, and Korean chess.

Which is why it is not much of surprise that volleyball games were spotted at the DPRK’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site on April 16, one day after the April 15 “Day of the Sun” holiday marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of President Kim Il Sung. It is also why volleyball games probably shouldn’t be taken as an indicator of the status of a country’s nuclear programme as it was here, here, and here. No message, no deception, perhaps just love of the game.

After all, during World War II Allied nuclear scientists and workers at Los Alamos and Hanford still found time for a little R&R. Had German or Japanese spies had the opportunity to observe a game of baseball or a visit by Santa Claus in 1944, it is unlikely they would have seen it as evidence of the Manhattan Project on hold.

Perhaps it is best not to over think volleyball (and then report it as news).

A Pyongyang Home Companion is a guide to daily life in Korea: how-to, food, sports, modern culture, and romance.

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