The media tends to paint a picture of North Korea that looks something like this: Starving workers, horrid political concentration camps, blacked-out electrical grids and elevators that don’t have the power needed to take elites up dozens of flights of stairs. Then there’s Kim Jong Un and his rockets, the alleged nuclear buttons, that standalone haircut and his meme-worthy smile.
Those portrayals are certainly justified, but here’s something that strays far from that script: North Korea has won at least 56 Olympic medals since the 1972 Games in Munich, while other countries such as Laos or Bangladesh have never won any. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea took home six medals from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London and seven medals from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — but now, the world is left to question whether the country will even show up to the Pyeongchang Games.
“In the Olympics, both summer and winter, North Korean athletes have competed pretty well,” C. Harrison Kim, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who studies socialism in East Asia and North Korea, said by phone. “It’s one of the few global occasions for North Korea that isn’t necessarily political, where the country can, on principle, compete with other countries in a very fair way. It’s their platform to show their capacity to compete with other nations.”
But even on one of the greatest platforms — thousands of cameras and the international stage — the world has gotten to know very little about North Korean athletes. In a nation with strictly controlled media and forced support of the government, it’s possible North Korean athletes are briefed on how to handle the reporters or are told to avoid them all together.
That elusiveness has, in turn, created a thirst for information about who these athletes are, what their lives are like and where they’ll appear next. Even a simple selfie featuring athletes from North Korea and South Korea at the Olympics has brought on serious analysis in the past.
Here’s what we do know about North Korean athletes, the Olympics and what’s to come in Pyeongchang:
The Pyeongchang Olympics could be a turning point for inter-Korean relations.
It’s still unknown whether North Korean athletes will be allowed to show up for the Pyeongchang Games in February. Hopes were not so high in recent months, but 2018 has brought a new approach from the Hermit Kingdom.
After nearly two years of severed contact, North Korea reopened direct phone lines with South Korea on Wednesday, and its government openly mentioned the possibility of sending a delegation to the Pyeongchang Games. South Korean President Moon Jae-in eagerly responded, offering to talk at the border village of Panmunjom — an area of the demilitarized zone that tourists can visit and where family reunions are held — as early as Tuesday to sort out the details (North Korea has already accepted the offer). The possibility of talks is already a stray from 2017’s hostile mood.
“For South Koreans, these international games have always been something to look forward to as a place of interaction with North Korea,” Kim said.
The Olympics are an important part of North Korea’s public relations strategy.
For many countries, the Olympics are about far more than sports. It’s a chance to impress, with world-beating athleticism somehow becoming symbolic of a nation’s greater power. North Korea is no exception to that trend, especially as a nation condemned by organizations like Human Rights Watch for its widespread human rights abuses.
“For the North Korean government, [the Olympics] have always played a small but hyper-visible role in its strategy,” Kim said. “And North Korea has in the past had a little bit of success.”
At the 2012 Summer Olympics, for example, then-19-year-old Rim Jong Sim of North Korea captured international attention when she clinched the Olympic gold for weightlifting in the women’s 69-kilogram event. Four out of six of the medals North Korea won that year were from weightlifting, and photos of Rim throwing up the barbell still resonate.
“The first thing I thought when I knew I had won was that I had made our beloved leader happy,” Rim told reporters in 2016.
“North Korea put up a great showing at the London Olympics, winning a whole bunch of medals,” Christopher Green, a Ph.D. candidate at Leiden University who researches North Korea, said in an email interview. “That was an absolute boon for Kim Jong Un, who had only just come to power and was being portrayed as a youthful leader who understood sports and sporting achievement.”
In general, sports are likely a useful diplomatic tool for the DPRK. The 1966 World Cup is one of several examples outside the Olympics — back then, many allegedly thought North Korean athletes wouldn’t qualify, and Britain’s Foreign Office reportedly considered denying them visas. Not only did the DPRK beat out Italy and advance to the quarter-finals, it managed to win over fans in the process.
“North Korea was seen as a mysterious, isolated, very small and militaristic country and they actually became the darlings of the 1966 World Cup in England,” Kim said. “Local British fans were actually rooting for North Korea … They actually beat Italy and made it to the top 16 rounds, which was unheard of for a small Asian country at the time.”
As the New York Times put it, “There is something else about that famous result from 1966, something that runs counter to many commonly held perceptions of North Koreans as a people. The men who won that match were funny, dignified and, above all, just like the sportsmen of any other nation.”
Losing athletes probably aren’t sent to gulags, contrary to popular belief.
North Korean athletes who perform well are celebrated in state-run media such as the Korean Central News Agency, which claimed that 2012 winners were awarded with luxury apartments. What happens to those who don’t win medals, however, has been the source of much speculation.
“We know for sure that the speculation about all these athletes being punished or sent to labor camps is all made up. That’s not true,” Kim said. “But of course, there are consequences for coaching staff and athletes who do not perform. They’re likely demoted and taken off the team, or they go back to their day jobs which are normally not that good.”
Some reports have said that failed athletes have been sent off to work in mines, though many of these claims are unverifiable. Surely, hard labor is far from ideal — but “it’s not a harsh, kind of spartan kind of life,” Kim said.
In Pyeongchang, we might see North Korean athletes — but perhaps not big winners.
Even if North Korea does show up at the Pyeongchang Games in February, only a single pair of figure skaters are likely to be there.
Ryom Tae Ok, 18, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, were the only two athletes who qualified for the games. Both have missed the deadline for confirming their attendance, though it’s unclear whether concessions would be made if the DPRK makes up its mind.
Nevertheless, with just two athletes potentially competing in 2018, it’s safe to assume North Korea will take home fewer Olympic medals than in recent years. Whether we’ll even see them in the rink, however, remains to be seen.