North Korea will send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, Seoul announced Tuesday — a move that prompted a rare outbreak in optimism on the Korean Peninsula after months of tension surrounding Pyongyang's weapons tests.
Despite the excitement, it is worth noting that this is not the first time that North Korea has participated in Olympic events.
Regardless of its international isolation, North Korea has a surprisingly successful history of participation in the Olympics that goes back 45 years. North Korea has sent athletes to every Summer Olympics since 1972, except for two it boycotted — the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul — earning 54 gold medals in total. Weightlifting and wrestling are its most successful events.
North Korea also participated in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. At that event, North Korea won seven medals, including two golds, making it one of the country's most successful Olympics. There was also a noteworthy positive interaction with South Korea at the event, when South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju posed for a selfie with Hong Un Jong, a North Korean counterpart.
North Korea's relatively successful Olympic record is surprising, given the country's small gross domestic product and isolation. However, Pyongyang is known to divert considerable resources to sports, with athletes enjoying well-funded facilities and relatively affluent lifestyles compared with other North Koreans.
North Korean athletes have performed unexpectedly well in some other international events, as well: Its men's soccer team reached the quarterfinals in the 1966 World Cup after beating Italy in a big upset.
For foreign powers, North Korea's involvement in the Olympics and other sporting events is generally viewed positively. However, it also has proved to be a source of tension, with critics arguing that Pyongyang uses these events as propaganda tools or to score leverage in negotiations. Some critics say the country's involvement in the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympics will be no different.
At its worst, North Korea has tried to disrupt events it is not a party to — a factor that had hung over the PyeongChang Games, to be held just 50 miles from the demilitarized zone, until Tuesday. Ahead of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, North Korean agents bombed a Korean Air flight, killing everyone on board. During the 2002 World Cup, jointly held in South Korea and Japan, a North Korean warship opened fire on a South Korean patrol boat, leaving six soldiers dead.
But North Korea has also used its participation in these sporting events as a way to raise hopes of reconciliation with the South. Just four years after the Korean Air bombing, the two Koreas participated as a single team under a special Korean Unification Flag in two sporting events in 1991.
The two teams marched together at several sporting events — including two Summer Olympics and one Winter Olympics — though they competed separately, during a period of relative calm in the early 2000s.
Things soon soured, however, and plans to form a joint delegation for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics fell apart because of North Korean demands. Many analysts argue that North Korea ultimately used its participation in these events to extract concessions, including payments, from South Korea — and that its participation in the PyeongChang Olympics should be viewed with skepticism.
North Korea's involvement in the PyeongChang Olympics is intriguing, given that it involves only winter sports. Even though the country has its fair share of winter sport-appropriate terrain and weather, North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics has been meager compared with the Summer Games. It has also been considerably less successful, with only two medals total won in eight Winter Games (and no golds) — lackluster results even for a country as poor as North Korea.
The hope this year is that North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik will change that. The two athletes — 18 and 25, respectively — were the only North Koreans to qualify for the Games. They have been training with Bruno Marcotte, a renowned French Canadian coach. They have a mixed record in recent events: winning gold in a pairs event at the 2016 Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy but placing 15th in the 2017 World Championships.
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