Among the realms of improbable phrases in our world, being able to say "I've had a North Korean at my table" must be right up there. However, New Zealand table tennis player Sarah Her-Lee will soon be able to say it.
Currently ranked fourth in the country, Her-Lee has received a special invitation to ply her trade in the world's most mysterious nation, in the Pyongyang International Invitation Tournament, a biannual event held in the North Korean capital since 1981. Her-Lee will play on a composite team, alongside players from Norway and Denmark and against teams from China, Russia, Mongolia, Japan, Iran - and the hosts.
"It is an incredible opportunity," Her-Lee told the Herald on Sunday, "I couldn't believe it when I was invited as it is a such a rare opportunity. I was a bit nervous at first but I am sure it will be fine. Their players are mostly full-time professionals but always quite a mystery; no one sees too much of them until the big events."
North Korea are consistently among the top 10 nations in the world and had female singles and doubles world champions in the 1970s. One of the more politically charged events at the recent Olympics came when the South Korean men's team faced their Northern rivals for a spot in the quarter-finals. You might have expected some drama, as the two countries are still technically at war (the 1950s conflict ended with a truce but no peace treaty) but it didn't eventuate. A Guardian writer noted the North Korean team insisted on applauding points they'd won "for just a couple of unsettling seconds too long" but otherwise it was quite sporting, with South Korea eventually prevailing.
YouTube footage of previous tournaments in Pyongyang shows matches taking place in a massive stadium with hordes of schoolchildren in the grandstand, each sat one seat apart, creating a visually symmetrical picture which perhaps also gives the appearance of a larger crowd. On the other side sat masses of cheering army personnel, including boys and girls who appeared to be barely in their teens.
Her-Lee, 26, will have the chance to play and train with some of the returning North Korean Olympians in the round robin event, as well as a few of the all-conquering Chinese team. Her-Lee was born in Taiwan and came to New Zealand at the age of 14, taking up the sport soon afterwards. . She is a two-time North Island champion and took home silver and bronze medals from the recent Oceania Championships in Fiji. A career highlight was facing then world number one Ding Ning (China) in the the 2011 Swedish Open, while the lowest was missing out on the 2010 Commonwealth Games team by one spot.
"Missing out by one place was really tough - I was pretty shattered," recalls Her-Lee, "but I decided I had to do something different to improve".
After much soul searching, the law graduate decided to continue with the sport. She put aside her legal career aspirations and she has spent the past year playing semi-professionally in Germany.
- Herald on Sunday