North Korean Olympic History
The small hermit kingdom of North Korea has a checkered Olympic history. The North first competed in the Olympic games in 1972, at the Munich Games in West Germany, under the flag of the Republic of Korea. In 1980, North Korea announced its intention to separate from the Republic of Korea, subsequently boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics and instead sending athletes to the Boycott Games of that year. However, this boycott only allowed North Korean athletes to compete against fellow boycotters from countries in the Eastern Bloc, canceling out any chance of competing in a global setting.
For the Seoul Summer Olympics in 1988, North Korea sent 90 athletes to compete in 12 events. Interestingly, though the two halves of Korea had split in the interim, the North and South marched together under the reunification flag at the opening and closing ceremonies, something North Korea has not done since.
North Korea’s Participation in the Olympic Movement
North Korea made an official statement at the 1992 Summer Olympics that they would return to the Olympic Movement and the IOC granted the North Korean state the ability to compete separately at Olympic Games, despite international sanctions that were placed upon the state.
Since then, North Korea has sent athletes to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympic Games more regularly. In 2012, North Korea sent 81 athletes to the London Summer Olympics and was one of only a handful of countries to actually improve on the number of medals won, taking home 5 medals in total after returning with only 3 in 2008 in Beijing.
North Korea in the 2016 Summer Olympics
For the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, North Korea sent 32 athletes to compete in 9 events. The nation returned home with just 2 medals, a gold medal in Weightlifting and a silver in Judo.
From an outsider’s perspective, North Korea’s performance at the Olympics appears to have been rather successful – and by all accounts it has been. Yet for many, North Korea’s presence at the Olympic Games remains a matter of concern. Questions arise over the purpose of what is believed to be an excessive entourage of support personnel, along with speculation over the recruitment of children and separated families.
North Korean Defectors
Recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has looked into the hardships encountered by North Korean defectors highlighted by the admission of South Korean-born figure skaters to compete at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. However, critics were still dissatisfied with the IOC’s response, feeling it did not go far enough to help North Korean athletes escape the country they have left behind.
It is unclear whether the IOC will take action to bring similar changes to the summer games, but it is certain that North Korean athletes have a long battle ahead of them if they wish to compete stand on a global stage.
Protests and North Korea
Protests against North Korea’s campaigns of oppression, which often use sporting events as public platforms, have been present at the Olympic Games throughout the years, though they have been marginalised and made far from the gaze of the public.
While a wide variety of views on the actions of North Korean athletes exists, it is undeniable that the populace of North Korea faces highly oppressive laws that dictate their behaviour in every aspect of life, with any chance of escape severely limited by the iniquitous regime.
Free Speech in Sports Events
Sport and politics are inextricably intertwined, making it important for governments and international agencies to carefully exercise their power. Politicisation of sports events should be avoided, yet it is imperative that powerful organisations like the IOC protect the voice of athletes and the communities they represent.
The Olympic Games give voice to the otherwise marginalised and unheard, allowing athletes to express themselves and their stories in ways unimaginable within their home countries. It is these unique stories that give the Olympics depth and complexity, and it is these stories that should be listening to.
Controversies Surrounding North Korean Athletes
In many cases, North Korean athletes have been subject to public scrutiny, the most famous example being then-gymnast Yang Tae-Young’s refusal to stand on a podium in 2004 until a judges’ reversal of his screen score was corrected.
For this act, Yang was awarded a bronze medal, one he chose not to accept with the anthem of North Korea playing for the occasion. His courage in such a setting was unprecedented, and in taking his stance against the IOC system he highlighted the importance of fair play and athlete’s rights in the Olympic Movement.
The Impact of Underfunded and Unsustainable Sports Infrastructure In North Korea
The sporting infrastructure in North Korea, however, has been extremely underdeveloped and sparse. Its athletes often choose simply to compete for fun, although if they are lucky they sometimes get to take home gifts and tips of appreciation from the government.
The lack of sporting infrastructure in North Korea has also had a detrimental effect on its international sporting success. North Korean athletes have often voiced their concerns, such as the dearth of trainers, coaches, and even basic nutrition.
The Effects of Sanctions on North Korean Athlete Performance
The international sanctions imposed upon North Korea over the past decades have exacerbated the country’s lack of resources and its sporting success has been limited as a result. In recent years, North Korea’s presence on the Olympic stage has decreased as economic sanctions have reduced the country’s ability to purchase proper training facilities and equipment.
It is worth noting, however, that even where resources are lacking, the commitment of the North Korean athletes remains and it is often these athletes who find ingenuity in the face of adversity, pushing their limits despite the lack of facilities.
The Future of North Korean Athletes In the Olympics
The question of North Korea’s presence at the Olympic Games remains a contentious issue. It remains to be seen whether participation in the Games will empower the North Korean people and their athletes, or whether it serves to benefit the elite and powerful.
It is uncertain how the ongoing political situation between North and South Korea will shape and influence the Olympics, but it is clear that both countries must play their part if the Olympic movement is to continue to reflect its true values.