February 25, 2024

From Military-First to Sports-First?

Emphasis on international competitions may hint at soft power approach

While sports fans across Asia were tuning in to the end of the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea, the international media was in a frenzy: where was North Korean leader Kim Jong Un? Among the rumors swirling during Kim’s 40-day absense was a report that Pyongyang was in lockdown, with Kim possibly overthrown in a coup. The affair was itself like watching the end of a sporting event, with the news outlets sitting on the edge of their seats with the clock winding down.

Inside North Korea, the absence of the North Korean leader was not quite as conspicuous. Round-the-clock news coverage centered on the medals won by North Korean athletes in the Asia Games, interspersed with patriotic music videos and commentary about how Kim Jong Un contributed to their successes. From statements like the weightlifter who felt that the love and trust of the leader growing by the day to the women’s soccer player who claimed that letters sent by the leader made her feel as if he were really there directing them, it was as if Kim Jong Un never left the public stage at all.