The Olympics and North Korea

I don’t know about you but I have not been able to get any sleep these past two weeks because of the Olympics. The time difference from London to Korea makes us have to stay up all night to be able to see all of the good games. But, let me tell you. It’s been worth it. South Korea has been doing extremely well, currently ranking 5th. It really is astonishing that a country so small would be doing this well. My parents can’t stop talking about that fact.

But South Korea is not the only Korea that has been doing surprisingly well. North Korea has also been raising a few eyebrows. With four golds and one bronze, North Korea has apparently won the most medals since the 1992 Olympics. And they have even set a new world record for the men’s 62 kg class category in weightlifting. I would say that’s doing extremely well for a country in the state that North Korea is in.

Kim Un Guk was able to lift a whopping 327 kilograms (721 lbs), adding 1 kg to the previous world record for weightlifting, which was held by Zhang Jie of China. Apparently, it is understood that a person is only able to lift 2.5 times his or her own weight. However, Kim was able to lift 3 times his weight, surprising the world.

North Korea first participated in the Summer Olympic Games in 1972 and has been in the Games since then except when they joined the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics and also when they boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games. But North Korean athletes do not have the same Olympic experience that athletes from other countries get to enjoy. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics athletes were reportedly not allowed out of their Olympic compound except for training or events. John Canzano of the Oregonian spoke to some who worked at the North Korea camp and found that athletes were not allowed to mingle with other athletes, and sight-seeing and other cultural events were strictly banned. Members of the North Korean woman’s soccer team are not even allowed to give interviews to reporters, and the responses from their coaches are bland to the point of insult, the AP reports. Some North Korean athletes haven’t bothered to show up to ceremonies where they would be awarded a medal.

In an interview about Olympian defectors, Olympic historian, David Wallechinsky was asked why there have never been any defectors from North Korea. He answers, “I have actually visited North Korea and this is the most repressive country I’ve ever been to. What they do is they threaten the families… I went to Albania one week after the fall of communism and I tracked down their greatest athlete ever in the Olympics who was a weight lifter, who was then working as a clown, a circus clown. And he told me that when he went to the 1972 Olympics there was one minder for every athlete. They were never allowed to be alone. And I’m sure that’s the exact same thing that the North Koreans are doing.”

Quite contrary to defection, the North Korean athletes have been turning their glory to their leader, Kim Jong Un and their country. Judo gold medalist An Kum Ae said, “As an athlete I believe by winning the gold medal I was able to glorify my nation and give support to the people of my nation, so I am really happy. I believe I gave some happiness and joy to our leader, Kim Jong Un.”

But other than love for their country and for their dear leader, what else could be driving these athletes to perform well? There have been some articles released that offer one possible explanation for this.

There have been rumors that North Korea only has two responses to athletes’ performances. If they do well they can expect refrigerators, cars, televisions and an immediate jump in social status. But poor performances, especially losing to their archenemy nations like the United States or South Korea, have consequences. Rumors of athletes being sent directly to labor camps upon arriving home are not confirmed, but it is a common procedure to open “review meetings” after the sports events in which participants “assess” their own and each other’s games, said Kim Yo-Han, a defector living in Seoul. North Korean defector Lee Chang-soo told Reuters in March that the difference between winning and losing an international competition could even be a matter of life and death. A bronze medal winner at the 1989 World Judo Championships, Lee’s life was turned upside down when he lost to a South Korean in the final of the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. Lee was sent to a coal mine for his failure.

Of course, much of the information regarding this are rumors and we will never know for sure what exactly happens to these athletes. I can only hope that they find peace in their game results and wish all of the North Korean athletes safety and well-being.

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