Blyth Spartans FC, located in the far northeast of England, toils in the National League North, the sixth tier of pro soccer in that country. Its stadium, Croft Park, holds only around 5,000 fans, meaning sponsorships are key to the team’s revenue in the absence of sizable ticket sales. Advertising boards ring the team’s pitch, including a curious banner that showed up just this week urging fans to “VISIT NORTH KOREA.”
A visit to Visit North Korea’s website reveals that the company is a travel agency — its LinkedIn page says it’s based in Shenzhen, China — with the unenviable task of getting people to, yes, visit North Korea, a country so isolated that it gets only about 5,000 Western tourists per year, according to a 2017 Guardian story. Visit North Korea announced its sponsorship deal with Blyth Spartans in a news release on its website, a notice that also appeared in the team program for its Boxing Day match against Spennymoor Town.
“As the game took place, spectators noticed the board quickly and were bewildered by what they saw, it provoked discussion on numerous platforms including both reddit and twitter, where several photos of it were posted,” Visit North Korea wrote, weirdly making note of the curious reaction its advertisement created.
“Wow,” Martin Woodford wrote on Twitter.
“Is this the oddest advert seen at a football ground?” Non League Nomads wondered in a tweet that followed the one above.
But all publicity is good publicity, right?
“Although it is certainly, it is unique and unconventional, Visit North Korea is nevertheless proud to be able to help support the great English game at a local level and secure publicity for clubs in the North of England,” the company wrote. “In the process, by promoting our programs we aim to help people broaden their horizons and think differently about the world.”
U.S. citizens have been banned from traveling to North Korea since the June 2017 death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who suffered severe brain damage while serving a 15-year hard-labor sentence in North Korea over a theft conviction obtained in a sham trial (he had been accused of attempting to steal a propaganda sign at a hotel). Warmbier had traveled to North Korea with a China-based tour agency and died six days after he was repatriated back into the United States, still suffering from his injuries. Earlier this month, the Trump administration’s special envoy for North Korea said the United States may ease travel restrictions to North Korea to facilitate humanitarian shipments.
On Monday, a U.S. federal judge ordered North Korea to pay Warmbier’s family $500 million for the “barbaric mistreatment” and death of the University of Virginia student.
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