North Korea has an interesting history when it comes to athletics. Included in this is a multitude of Olympic gold medals, as well as a surpassing of expectations in the 1966 World Cup, in which the North Korean team made its way to the quarterfinals. North Korean athletes who succeed come back home as revered heroes and receive rewards in the form of money, or gifts of some sort, usually a car.
These victories are extremely important to the regime in North Korea, where “any success [by North Korean athletes at the Olympics] will be used extensively for propaganda purposes" in order to bolster the cult of personality surrounding Kim Jong-un, as Executive Director of HRNK Greg Scarlatoiu explained. Unfortunately, North Korean athletes and coaches face serious consequences if they do not perform to the regime’s expectations. North Korean law actually dictates that:
“A person who does not rightly select athletes for important competitions, resulting in serious consequences shall be punished by short-term labour for less than two years. In cases where the person commits a grave offence, he or she shall be punished by reform through labour for less than five years.”
-Article 206 (Unjust Selection of Athletes) of the 2009 DPRK Criminal Code
The luckiest of the losing athletes who return to North Korea are faced with public humiliations, as was the case with the 2010 World Cup Team, accused of failure and betrayal of the regime. The team’s coach, Kim Jong-hun, was even stripped of his party membership and sentenced to hard labor at a construction site as punishment.
If North Korea wishes to gain the respect of the international community, it must do so with real and meaningful changes, starting first and foremost with drastic reform of its prison system. No matter how large, elegant, or modern North Korea’s new sports facilities may look, they will never be able to fully mask the atrocities that they attempt to hide.
By HRNK Research Intern Christopher Motola