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Shooting hoops for peace in North Korea

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
updated 12:17 PM EDT, Fri June 29, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • American basketball club held training camps for North Korean students
  • Club founder Luke Elie grew up with his missionary parents in South Korea close to the DMZ
  • Elie believes his was the first American basketball team ever to visit North Korea
  • New leader Kim Jong Un is believed to love basketball, as did his father

Seoul (CNN) -- Luke Elie claims he and his American basketball team introduced the high five to North Korea.

It's a big claim, but anything's possible after the group of fourteen players and coaches held a week of training camps for North Korean students in the capital, Pyongyang.

"We really wanted to promote basketball, diplomacy, friendship, break those barriers," said Elie who founded the club -- Coaches Team -- while living in South Korea. The club's stated mission is to "use basketball to break down political and social boundaries that exist all around the globe."

Growing up with his missionary parents in South Korea close to the DMZ -- or demilitarized zone, separating north and south -- Elie always wanted to see what was happening in Pyongyang. "North Korea was a place that was so close yet so far away."

Elie believes his was the first American basketball team ever to visit North Korea. His intention was to foster friendships and build trust through sport.

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"We wanted to... bring in a whole team of Americans and say hey we're not those guys you see on posters," he said. "We're not those guys you hate so much, we want to be separated from the government and let the government do whatever they want."

Relations between Washington and Pyongyang have long been strained. Tensions rose earlier this year after the North Korean regime defied international warnings and launched a long-range rocket. The U.S. and other countries saw the launch as cover for a ballistic missile test.

But Coaches Team was adamant their visit would ignore politics. The players had far more interaction with North Koreans than most tourists do, although Elie admits the students they trained were suspicious of them in the beginning.

"At first there was distance," he said. "But before the end of the games and practicing sessions, the kids were definitely laughing with us. It took a while to get laughs out of the kids, we didn't know why they didn't smile."

Basketball is one American import that the North Korean leadership may not object to. The young leader Kim Jong Un is believed to love the sport as did his father, the late Kim Jong Il, who is rumored to have been a big fan of basketball star Michael Jordan. Elie hopes that may help when they try to return next year.

But even though the trip was a sporting one, the team did not escape the usual North Korean propaganda. They were taken by their tour group to the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy spy ship captured by Pyongyang in 1968 and told stories of the "US imperialists," but that didn't seem to phase Elie.

It took a while to get laughs out of the kids, we didn't know why they didn't smile.
Luke Elie

"We tried not to look to the anti-Americanism or the propaganda, we knew it was coming, we were briefed ahead of time and we didn't want to get caught up in that."

The group also attended a Protestant church service. Human rights groups claim that North Korean Christians have faced persecution in the past for practicing their religion. "To actually go there and be a part of a church service of that kind was actually very shocking, it was very enlightening and actually a very interesting experience," said Elie, himself a Christian.

And there was the obligatory visit to the huge bronze statues of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il. Other sightseeing tours included Pyongyang's funfair and the famous Juche Tower, named after Kim Il Sung's principle of "Juche" or "self-reliance."

The players and coaches raised $50,000 themselves to fund the trip. They're hoping to find sponsorship for future visits -- and Elie is determined there will be more training tours.

"We've seen as athletes and as someone who's played and traveled all around the world and with groups that have done likewise," he said "We've seen what basketball can do to break down barriers or race, religion and anything else you could ever imagine."

CNN's K.J. Kwon contributed to this report.

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