North Korea and its Olympic history

North Korea and South Korea reached a landmark agreement for Pyongyang to send a team to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this month. The two nations will also field a joint ice-hockey team and march together under one flag at the opening ceremony.

Cover image: Mark Baker/AP

The news came after a year of escalation on the Korean Peninsula following a number of weapons tests by the North.

Pyongyang has a long and surprisingly successful history at international sporting events. But Olympic events have sometimes proved to be a source of international tension with North Korea, too.

Early years

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North Korea first appeared at the Olympic Games 11 years after the end of the Korean War. At the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, a North Korean speed skater won a silver medal in the women’s 3,000-meter event.

It wasn’t until six years later that North Korea participated in a Summer Games, this time in Munich. There the North Koreans won a gold medal in shooting, a silver in boxing and bronze medals in two other events: women’s volleyball and men’s judo.

At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, North Korea’s Han-Gyong Si set a weightlifting world record during the snatch competition.

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Gymnast Myong Hui Choe of North Korea made her debut at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

International Olympic Picture Pool via AP

Boycotts

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Though North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics was sporadic, it continued to compete regularly in the Summer Games — with the exception of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul.

Those Olympiads took place amid Cold War tensions. In 1984, Pyongyang joined a Soviet-led boycott of the Games. Two years later, it boycotted the Asian Games being held in Seoul, and did the same in 1988 for the Summer Olympics in the South Korean capital.

A year before the 1988 Games, North Korean agents were involved in the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, which killed all 115 passengers and crew on board. One agent, Kim Hyon Hui, later confessed to the bombing and implicated future North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in her testimony.

North Korean spy Kim Hyon Hui is escorted from a plane upon arriving in Seoul from Bahrain after bombing a Korean Air jetliner.

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Sports

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North Korea returned to the Summer Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and scored nine medals in total — including four gold — in one of its most successful appearances yet.

Since then, North Korea has competed at every Summer Games. Given the country’s isolation and small economy, it has seen a fair amount of success — a product, according to Christopher Green of the International Crisis Group, of sustained investment in sporting facilities.

Among Pyongyang’s most successful summer sporting events are weightlifting and wrestling — notably, two sports emphasized by the Soviet Union. However, North Korea has also seen success in a number of other sports, including women’s soccer.

North Korea’s Kim Hyon Hui returns a ball to Ryu Ji-hye of South Korea during the 1996 Olympic table tennis qualifying tournament.

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Gold-medal winner Kye Sun stands with the North Korean flag during the women's extra-lightweight judo medal ceremony in Atlanta in 1996.

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Fans of North Korea react before a women's soccer match with Germany in 2008 in Beijing.

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Kim Kyong Hwa of North Korea kicks the ball during the 2008 match with Germany.

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Unification flag

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After the tension of 1988, North Korea began to use the Olympics and other sporting events as venues for symbolic gestures of reconciliation with the South. In 1991, the two Koreas sent unified teams to the world table-tennis championships in Japan and soccer’s FIFA World Youth Championship in Portugal.

The two nations also marched together at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in 2000 and 2004, as well as the Winter Olympics in 2006 and a number of other international sporting events.

At these events, the two Koreas marched under a shared “Korea Unification Flag” to express their hopes for reconciliation.

A closed country

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North Korea takes pride in its international sporting successes, but censorship and isolation mean that North Koreans do not tend to see a full picture of the Olympic Games. Though some events featuring North Koreans are shown live on state television, the limited range of media available in the country means that the Games cannot receive the same amount of coverage as in other nations.

Torchbearer Park Du Ik runs with the Olympic flame through cheering throngs in Pyongyang in 2008.

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Spectators watch an Olympic qualifier between North Korea and Iraq in Pyongyang in 2008.

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Compared with the average North Korean, Olympic athletes lead a luxurious life. Not only are they given better housing and other perks in Pyongyang, they also have the opportunity to travel outside the country — viewing a world relatively few North Koreans get to see.

However, North Koreans are kept isolated while at the Olympics. “We're not allowed to see places of interest,” said Wang Ok Gyong, a North Korean swimmer, to American sports reporter John Canzano at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. “No mixing with others.”

North Korean Olympians who competed in London in 2012 lay wreaths at the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

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Two years after winning gold in judo in 2012, North Korean Olympian An Kum Ae poses with her medal at her Pyongyang home.

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Kim’s push for gold

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Since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, North Korea has allocated even more money for sporting facilities, including opening the Pyongyang International Football School in 2013 to train soccer players.

Notably, there has been a significant push toward winter sports in recent years, with North Korea opening a number of ski resorts. This may suggest a shift in thinking about the Olympics in North Korea, which has seen relative success at the Summer Games but lackluster results at the Winter Games.

Members of a ”ski camp” at the Masikryong resort, near the city of Wonsan, in 2017. It’s the North Korea’s only winter resort and the brainchild of leader Kim Jong Un.

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Workers make balls at the Pyongyang Sports Equipment Factory in 2016.

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Unity in sports?

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The last Summer Olympics in Rio saw a rare moment of hope for the two Koreas after South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-Ju posed for a selfie with Hong Un Jong of the North.

For many, the hope is that the PyeongChang Games can help build momentum toward real thaw in relations. The two nations are not only marching under the Korean Unification Flag but fielding a joint women’s hockey team, a first for an Olympic Games.

But many in South Korea and elsewhere are concerned that Pyongyang is using Olympic participation as a tactic for gaining concessions from Seoul. It also remains unclear whether any gestures of reconciliation during the Games can be sustained — or whether the tension of 2017 will return after the closing ceremony.