WorldViews | Analysis
August 10, 2016 at 2:34 PM
It's hard to fathom the excitement and stress athletes from all over the world feel when competing at the Olympic Games.
But imagine if you were in Rio representing one of the most notoriously authoritarian regimes in the world. How would you feel then? Would you be proud to show the wider world that your home country isn't as bad as it's portrayed?
Or would your interaction with other nationalities and experience in another country prompt you to reevaluate your home?
Might you even try to defect?
Bear these considerations in mind when considering the 31 North Korean athletes and their supporting team members in Rio for the 2016 Summer Games.
North Korea is well-known around the world as a "Hermit Kingdom" — a country whose citizens tend to have little to no access to the wider world and whose government has an antagonistic relationship with most other governments. Yet despite the country's isolation, North Korean athletes have competed in every Summer Olympics since 1972, except for two it boycotted (the 1984 games in Los Angeles and the 1988 games in Seoul).
The country has won medals at every one of these games and now has a total of 49, with weightlifting and wrestling its most successful events.
Christopher Green, a North Korea analyst based in Seoul, says that for any country, the Olympics are an important exercise in asserting itself on the world stage, but in North Korea it may be worse. The country's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, has made it clear that he is proud of the North's sporting achievements and that he would like to see more success.
"In 2012, the North Korean team walked away with four golds from the Olympics in London, and received a hero's welcome in Pyongyang upon their return, triggering an energetic domestic sports-related public relations campaign," Green writes in an email. "That is just one example from the last four years. Kim instructed the North Korean team heading for Rio to come back with five gold medals this time."
North Korean citizens will certainly know about the Olympics and will probably watch some events on state television, Green says, though they are likely to be shown only highlights of events in which North Korean athletes are competing. For example, North Korean state television showed highlights of Om Yun Chol winning a silver medal in the men's 56 kg weightlifting, according to the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, which keeps tabs on North Korean television broadcasting. However, while the event took place Sunday, it was aired in North Korea on Wednesday, running from 9:40 p.m. to 10:28 p.m. local time.
While at the games, North Korean athletes may be expected to act differently than their peers. During the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, sports reporter John Canzano tried to find out what the North Korean athletes did outside their events during their time in China, one of North Korea's few allies.
He was dismayed by the response. "We're not allowed to see places of interest," Wang Ok Gyong, a North Korean swimmer, told him through an interpreter. "No mixing with others."
It's not clear whether things are much better in Rio. One report from Radio Free Asia's Korean service suggests that North Korean Olympic officials have refused to give the athletes free Galaxy 7 smartphones given by Olympic sponsor Samsung to all athletes competing in the games — quite possibly an attempt to control their lines of communications.
Tighter control on North Korean athletes may also be an attempt to block defections. Foreign sporting events have long seen athletes from authoritarian countries run away or claim asylum — at least 45 members of the Eritrean soccer team have defected during various foreign trips over recent years. During the 2012 London Olympic Games, a variety of athletes disappeared and were later found to have defected.
However, there have been no known defectors from North Korea during any Olympics in which the country has competed. It's possible this lack of defections is due to the tight control exerted by North Korean security forces and potential punishments for families left behind.
But it's also clear from watching the games that North Korean athletes may be genuinely in thrall to their country and have a real desire to make it proud. And besides, those who win gold medals may receive considerable rewards from the state.
"Successful athletes have done very well in recent years, receiving better housing in Pyongyang and other gifts from the government for their efforts," Green says. "Sports have always been important to the government, but the resources have not always been there to develop talent; now there is more money going into sports facilities for elite athlete development, which is a reward of a sort, too."
Aside from medals, the behavior of North Korean athletes at the Rio games has reflected well, so far. A good-natured selfie taken by 27-year-old North Korean Olympic veteran Hong Un Jong and her 17-year-old South Korean rival Lee Eun-ju caught global attention this week, with IOC President Thomas Bach describing it as a "great gesture."
Less heralded in the West has been the behavior of the North Korean weightlifter Om, whose gregarious and humble nature was noted in domestic South Korean media.
"I am not a hero in North Korea, because I didn't win the gold," Om told reporters after his silver-medal win Sunday.