North Korea's Olympic outfitter hopes for publicity gold

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Hoping to achieve what Michael Jordan did for Nike, a little-known Chinese sportswear brand is banking on the North Korean Olympic team for publicity.

China-made sneakers are displayed inside a store in China's southern city of Guangzhou February 17, 2008. REUTERS/Joseph Chaney

Top global labels may not be tripping over each to sponsor an isolated country once termed by U.S. President George W. Bush as part of an ‘axis of evil’, but China Hongxing is hoping for some North Korean gold medals to impress its domestic audience.

“The relationship between North Korea and the Chinese is actually very strong,” said Jenny Yeo, spokeswoman for Singapore-listed China Hongxing.

“They tend to watch the North Koreans compete in the events that the Chinese are also strong in, so sponsoring North Korea will get a lot more eyeballs,” she said.

North Korean athletes in the Beijing Games will be sporting a stylized swan logo from China Hongxing’s “Erke” brand, which means “you conquer” in Mandarin.

North Korea refused to compete as a joint team with the South in Beijing and is looking to capture medals from weightlifting, judo and wrestling.

China Hongxing will be kitting out the team with leotards, soccer boots and the red windbreakers the athletes will wear to the August 8 opening ceremony. Erke will be selling some of this sportswear in China and expects buyers seeking novelty value.

“The North Koreans take sports seriously and we see them really trying to be as prepared for the Olympics as possible. It is quite a major thing for them,” Yeo said.

The United States, which has sanctions on North Korea, says the communist country has one of world’s worst human rights records and is looking for verification on its nuclear disarmament in a six-party process chaired by China.

But China Hongxing is unfazed.

“We are definitely aware of Western perceptions of North Korea but at the end of the day, the Olympics is all about sportsmanship,” Yeo said.

Editing Neil Chatterjee and Miral Fahmy