By Jenna Gibson
North Korea may be all but cut off from the international community, but that has not stopped the reclusive regime from entering the public spotlight every two years for the Olympic Games.
The DPRK’s first foray into the Olympic field was in the 1964 Winter Games, where they won one medal – a silver in speed skating. They have participated on and off in the Winter Games since then, only picking up one bronze medal in 1992 in short track speed skating.
North Korean athletes have a better track record in the Summer Games, winning 47 total medals since their debut in 1972. In London, the DPRK took home four gold and two bronze medals.
Despite widespread reports of the poor treatment of the disabled in North Korea, the country sent its first athlete to the Paralympic Games in 2012, where he competed in two swimming events. It is unclear whether they will send any athletes to this year’s Paralympics.
With 31 athletes competing in nine sports this year, the DPRK hopes to add to its medal count. Weightlifter Om Yun-chol will be defending his London gold, and two-time world champion vaulter Ri Se-gwang is also a favorite. Upon arrival at the athlete’s village in Rio, the head of the North Korean delegation to Rio declared that “We will live up to the expectations of the North Korean people.”
Considering that successful athletes are awarded titles like “hero” and “people’s athlete,” along with prize money and swanky Pyongyang apartment upon return to the DPRK, those expectations could be quite high.
In its weekly “Ask a North Korean” feature, NK News contributor Jinhyok Park said that any athletic triumphs are used in propaganda within the DPRK.
“Athletic matches in which North Koreans win are selectively chosen to be aired throughout North Korea, with competitions very rarely aired live. After seeing the results, North Korean authorities decide which matches they want to air within the country,” he wrote. “As of late, though, it has become increasingly rare for North Koreans to win major international competitions and therefore Pyongyang is instead now focusing on emphasizing the participation of North Korean athletes in such competitions, rather than the medals they win.”
While defections during Olympics are not unheard of – one famous case was in 1956 in Melbourne when about three dozen Hungarian athletes decided to defect. However, thus far no North Korean athlete has defected during an Olympic event.
This is perhaps because they are kept so isolated during the games. In Beijing in 2008, the media reported that the North Korean athletes were not allowed outside of their Olympic compound unless they were training or competing, and that they were banned from interacting with athletes from other countries. The London Olympics were similar, with Business Insider reporting that some North Korean athletes didn’t even show up for their own medal award ceremonies.
When athletes do make statements after a big win, they are always careful to attribute their success to the ruling Kim family.
“The reason that I’m able to get the gold medal at these Olympics is due to the warm love and consideration of General Kim Jong-il and comrade Kim Jong-un,” weightlifter Om Yun-cho declared after winning gold in London. “Because of them, I was able to get great strength today.”
Kim Un-guk, who also came away with a gold in weightlifting that year, told ABC News that he “won first place because the shining Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un gave me power and courage.”
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Luciano Silva’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.