Yet North Korean involvement in the Olympic Games is nothing new. Pyongyang has a long and surprisingly successful history at sporting events such as the Olympics, but these events have sometimes been a source of international tension, too.
North Korea first appeared at an Olympic Games in 1964, 11 years after the Korean War ended in an armistice. At that Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, it won a silver medal in the women’s 3,000-meter speed skating event.
It wasn’t until several years later that North Korea participated in a Summer Games, this time in Munich. There the North Korean delegation won a gold medal in shooting, a silver in boxing and two bronzes in women’s volleyball and men’s judo.
Though North Korea’s participation in the Winter Olympics would go on to be sporadic, it continued to participate in the Summer Games — with the exception of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul.
These events occurred amid Cold War tensions. In 1984, Pyongyang joined a Soviet-led boycott of the Games. It boycotted the Asian Games in Seoul two years later and the 1988 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 members on board. One agent, Kim Hyon Hui, later confessed to her role in the bombing and
North Korea returned to the Summer Olympics in 1992, held in Barcelona. It won nine medals, including four golds — one of its most successful appearances.
Since then, North Korea has competed at every Summer Games. Despite the country’s isolation and small economy, it has achieved a fair amount of success from its sustained investment in sporting facilities, according to Christopher Green of the International Crisis Group.
Among Pyongyang’s most successful Summer Olympics sporting events are weightlifting and wrestling, two sports that notably also were emphasized by the Soviet Union. However, North Korea has had success in a number of other sports, including women’s soccer.
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 other international sporting events.
At these events, the two Koreas marched under a shared “Korea Unification Flag” to express their hopes for reconciliation.
North Korea takes pride in its international sporting successes, but censorship and isolation means North Koreans tend not to get a full picture of the Olympic Games. Though some events featuring North Koreans are shown live on state television, the limited media availability in the country means the Games cannot receive the same amount of coverage as in other nations.
Compared with the average citizen in North Korean, Olympic athletes in the country lead luxurious lives. Not only are they given better housing and other perks, they also have the opportunity to travel abroad — something relatively few North Koreans can do.
However, North Koreans have a cloistered life when at the Olympics itself.
“We're not allowed to see places of interest,” Wang Ok Gyong, a North Korean swimmer, told U.S. sports reporter John Canzano at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. “No mixing with others.”
Since Kim Jong Un took power in late 2011, North Korea has allocated more money for sporting facilities, opening the Pyongyang International Football School in 2013 to train soccer players, for example.
Notably, there has been a significant push toward winter sports in recent years, with North Korea opening a number of ski resorts. This commitment may suggest a shift in thinking about the Olympics in North Korea, which has had relative success at the Summer Games but lackluster results, and several years of no participation, at the Winter Games.
The last Summer Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, produced 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 foster a real thaw in relations. Notably, the two nations are not only marching under the Unification Flag but also fielding a joint women’s hockey team, a first for an Olympic Games.
But many in South Korea and elsewhere are concerned that Pyongyang could be using Olympic participation as a tactic to gain concessions from Seoul. It also remains unclear whether any gestures of reconciliation made during the Games can be sustained or whether the tension of 2017 will resurface after the closing ceremony.