North Korean golfers sport sanctions-blocked Nike apparel

State media removes images of ‘swoosh’ logo from photos and videos after Korean-language RFA story breaks.
By Kim Jisu for RFA Korean
2024.05.23
North Korean golfers sport sanctions-blocked Nike apparel Photos and video from North Korea’s state-run media show golfers at a golf tournament wearing Nike brand shoes and clothing – luxury products that should be blocked by U.N. sanctions on the country, May 9, 2024, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
RFA screenshot

UPDATED on May 28, 2024 at 10:53 a.m. ET

Photos and video from North Korea’s state-run media showed golfers at a recent tournament sporting Nike brand shoes and clothing – luxury products that should be blocked by U.N. sanctions on the country.

Video footage of the May 9 event shows a golfer clad in white, putter in hand, with the iconic swoosh logo on his pants and shoes.

But a day after RFA Korean published a Korean-language version of this story on May 20, the state-run Korean Central News Agency, or KCNA, cut 10 seconds of the video to remove the part showing the Nike logos. 

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Video viewed on May 20th Length: 3 minutes 47 seconds.

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Video viewed on May 21st Length: 3 minutes and 37 seconds. On the 21st, the day after this report came out, the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) immediately cut out the scene where the Nike logo appeared in the video. Radio Free Asia (RFA) compared the same video on the 20th and 21st, reducing it from 3 minutes and 47 seconds to 3 minutes and 37 seconds, with only the part where the Nike logo appears.

The golfers are likely from North Korea’s elite, and it appears that authorities are fine with them wearing a brand so closely associated with the United States – which Pyongyang frequently criticizes as being imperialistic.

This happened in the same country that punishes ordinary people for wearing blue jeans or T-shirts with foreign words, saying they are symbols of decadent capitalist culture. 

The golf tournament images are additional pieces of evidence that despite the U.N. sanctions – aimed at curbing Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions –  North Korea is able to obtain luxury items for its upper class, said Bruce Bechtol, a professor at Angelo State University in Texas.

“Obviously nobody's playing golf in North Korea except for senior party members and generals,” he said. “When it comes to luxury items for the North Koreans, they still are able to ship those things, and it's something that has been a very big problem for a very long time.”

When RFA contacted Nike's corporate headquarters for comment, an official statement from the company confirming that it complies with sanctions and does not export product to North Korea was relayed to RFA via Vibe Company Korea, the public relations agency handling the Nike Korea account.

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Photos and video from North Korea’s state-run media show golfers at a golf tournament wearing Nike brand shoes and clothing – luxury products that should be blocked by U.N. sanctions on the country, May 9, 2024, in Pyongyang, North Korea. (RFA screenshot)

The Nike items were likely produced overseas by North Korean workers, Bruce Bennett, a senior Fellow at the California-based RAND Corporation, told RFA.

“North Korea creates different companies that are operating overseas,” he said. “They're operating in Southeast Asia, they're operating in Africa and in those locations, the other companies in the area either don't know that the companies … are really associated with North Korea, or they do, and they don’t care.”

He said that North Korea’s ability to acquire Nike apparel is an attempt to demonstrate that the leader Kim Jong Un can overcome sanctions against him and other elites.

RFA Korean reported in 2016 that North Korean workers had been making clothing for global brands at subcontracted factories in China and other locations over a four year period, beginning in May 2012.  

According to the book ‘North Korea, the World’s Clothing Factory’ published in South Korea in 2020, jackets made for U.S. brand New Balance were produced in North Korea and sold in China.

Translated by Claire S. Lee. Edited by Eugene Whong.

Update includes official statement from Nike.

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