North Korea joined the Olympic movement quite late in the game. While South Korean athletes first competed in 1948, even before the formal creation of the Republic of Korea, the DPRK have only participated in the Winter Olympics since 1964 and the Summer Games from 1972.
However, as older readers may remember, the 80s was an era of the Cold War and one which impacted national participation in the Olympics. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, the United States, the PRC and some of their allies boycotted the Moscow Olympics. The Soviet Union responded by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 and was joined in doing so by North Korea and many other communist countries.
But for the DPRK, the 1984 boycott was nothing compared to the following Olympics. Pyongyang was shocked when it learned that in 1988, the Summer games would be hosted in the heart of their mortal enemy – Seoul.
Understandably, the DPRK tried to do everything in their power to reverse the International Olympic Committee’s decision. From May 1984, they started a campaign aimed at relocating the Olympics from South Korea to a “neutral country” or to have both the North and the South jointly host the events. As soon as any media in any country voiced an opinion in support of this proposal, the North Korean party newspaper – the Rodong Sinmun – immediately quoted and highlighted it.
The campaign lasted until September 1988 and with only less than a month left until the games, Pyongyang finally understood that it had lost. To add insult to injury, the Soviet Union, after serious debates in the Politburo, decided to stop the series of boycotts and send its team to Seoul.
In the final two weeks before and during the Games, the Rodong Sinmun blasted the event as a “military-fascist dictatorial Olympic games” betraying the nation, but no one was listening. South Korea only answered to these hateful headlines with a song of peace: the official song of the 1980s Olympics “Hand in Hand”, which is still quite popular here in the South.
It is quite fascinating that, despite the DPRK being a poor country, its athletes perform very well. Recently, the Voice of America calculated the GDP per medals coefficient for countries participating in the Rio, and the DPRK, surprisingly, ranked first place in the rating. As of August 20, North Korea moved down to 7th place, with Grenada in the lead.
If we take a look at all the years that North Korea participated in the Olympics, we can see that the country has performed well in weightlifting (27 medals), wrestling (15 medals), judo (12 medals) and boxing (11 medals). As for the Winter Games, the country fared relatively worse, with only two medals in total for women’s speed skating in 1964 and women’s short-track in 1992.
YOU’VE GOT A MEDAL? BE THANKFUL TO THE LEADER
When it comes to sports in general, and to international athletic events in particular, there are two basic political principles that are followed in North Korea.
The first is that newspapers can only report about North Korean victories. The only exception would be when North Korea loses to a legendary team, as was the case in the 2010 FIFA World Cup. When the DPRK football team lost to Brazil 1-2, the Rodong Sinmun published an article called “A spiritual victory of the Korean team,” where it humbly bragged that being defeated by one of the best teams in the world by only one point was not a major defeat, but a minor victory.
North Korean authorities decided to air the next match on live TV, which proved to be a huge mistake. The match against Portugal was the biggest defeat in the history of the North Korean football, as Portugal crushed the DPRK with an outstanding score of 7-0. All of North Korea endured the shameful match and the commentators, who were only accustomed to boasting about the never-ending victory streak of socialist Korea, simply did not know what to say by the end of the match. There were no further experiments with live TV sports in North Korea.
And the second principle is that victors are supposed to tell the journalists that their victory was all due to the Fatherly Leader and his wise guidance. Real examples include, “I am most happy when the Marshal is glad”, or “I would like to present him my gold medal” or “I would like to present my deepest gratitude by the beloved Marshal for his faith in us”. There is no particular formula to praise the Leader, but only after praising him could victors express gratitude to their fans as well.
PYONGYANG AND THE PARALYMPICS
Many people view the Paralympic Games as a mere attachment to the Olympics. I find this to be quite sad since the Paralympics demonstrate the full potential of a human being. A disabled athlete in the Paralympic Games is seemingly fated to live a deficient life yet manages to achieve much greater results than most of us healthy people ever could.
When it comes to North Korea, the situation with the disabled was sad, if not horrible. Under Kim Il Sung, the handicapped were divided into two categories: veterans and others. Veterans were considered heroes and even supported and glorified by an entire industry dedicated to them. The state even launched a campaign calling young girls to marry disabled veterans.
The treatment of civilian invalids was infinitely more grim. They were not only disregarded as full-fledged members of society, but were removed from Pyongyang entirely as the capital’s aesthetic, it was decided, should not be tainted by the handicapped. Usually the disabled were put in special closed settlements in faraway regions, under the justification that it is better to get rid of those with no ability to contribute to society. Without any independently thinking intellectuals in the country, such a decision was met with almost no resistance.
Surely, one could not even think of letting the disabled out of the country, let alone, allowing them to represent the DPRK in sports. Thus up to 2012, the DPRK completely ignored the Paralympics.
In early 2010, however, North Korea shifted its rather unrelenting policy to a more humane one. North Korean propaganda began hailing the greatness of the socialist system, under which even the disabled feel the love of the great Marshal and North Korea sent their first athlete to the 2012 Paralympics. Lim Chu Song, born in 1995, was to compete in swimming. However, he finished last, arriving more than 10 seconds after the penultimate swimmer. One could wonder if Lim was truly a professional sportsman, or sent abroad because of his family’s connections. On the other hand, his poor results could simply be the result of a lack of Olympics training in the DPRK.
BETTER SPORTS THAN THE LEADER
Many people consider sports and the Olympics a rather dirty and heavily politicized business, but this is less applicable to North Korea since everything is already so politicized. Sports news look rather neutral in comparison to an omnipresent personality cult.
There are still 24 hours in a day, and the Rodong Sinmun is usually limited to six pages. One more news piece about sports means one less propaganda piece about the Leader, the Commander and the Marshal. Which, of course, should be welcomed.
Featured image: DPRK Today
North Korea joined the Olympic movement quite late in the game. While South Korean athletes first competed in 1948, even before the formal creation of the Republic of Korea, the DPRK have only participated in the Winter Olympics since 1964 and the Summer Games from 1972.However, as older readers may remember, the 80s was an era of the Cold War and one which impacted national participation in
Fyodor Tertitskiy is an expert in North Korean politics and the military and a contributor to NK News and NK Pro. He holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from Seoul National University, and is author of "North Korea before Kim Il Sung," which you buy here.