Olympics raise questions over NK athletes
By Kim Young-jin
North Korea has drawn attention this week with its surprising success at the London Olympics but also curiosity over the lives of the athletes from the secretive country.
The victories, including the latest by weightlifters Kim Un-guk and Om Yun-chol, have given the regime a public relations boost as the competitors, as would be expected, attributed their success to the country’s ruling family helmed by Kim Jong-un.
``The secret is nothing but the support and encouragement from our supreme leader chairman Kim Jong-un, because he expects so much from all our athletes, and he expects the highest performance from all our athletes. That's the secret,'' the Associated Press quoted Kim as saying following his gold medal effort in the 62-kilogram category.
Such exultations come amid a campaign by the North to acclimate the world to Kim Jong-un, who took power seven months ago, that has included the disclosure of his marriage and images of the couple attending a Western-themed concert.
The North’s performances, which also include a gold in women’s judo, have helped take the sting out of an earlier blunder by the organizers when a South Korean flag was mistakenly displayed before the women's football game between North Korea and Colombia.
Coverage of the North has raised questions from international observers, including on the tricky diplomacy athletes may have to engage in over exulting Kim and his late father, Kim Jong-il.
“Give too much credit to the father, and the slighted son could be displeased,” the International Herald Tribune’s Rendezvous blog mused. “Praise the new leader too much, and you risk insulting his father’s legacy.”
According to reports, North Korean Olympians are closely monitored by minders and reports say their movements are restricted compared to their counterparts.
Watching France pummel the North’s women’s football team, 4-0, Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated tweeted: “Always uneasy watching North Korean teams embarrassed. Don’t know what awaits on return home.”
Rumors circulated in 2010 that the male football players were punished with “ideological criticism” for their 7-0 defeat against Portugal in the South Africa World Cup. Defectors have said family members of high-profile athletes have been shown favoritism in housing.
Analysts say the North, like other small countries, sees success on the international sporting stage as good for its image abroad. It is also likely to put a spin such victories to demonstrate the superiority of its system.