By Christopher Motola, HRNK Research Intern
The Guardian recently reported on the lavish renovations at North Korea’s May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world.
The changes, including a brand new soccer training annex and FIFA logos on the walls, are just the latest example of North Korea’s push to modernize its sports facilities. Of course, this is yet another sign of North Korea’s aspirations to host part of the World Cup and Olympic Games, or even the entire competition. This serves its overall goal of gaining credibility and international respect for its athletics.
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.
Others have fared even worse, and there have been various reports of failed athletes being sent to the political prison camps as punishment for their performances. According to the Chosun Ilbo, “A South Korean intelligence source said, ‘[i]n the past, North Korean athletes and coaches who performed badly were sent to prison camps.’” Even the victors of the 1966 World Cup were allegedly subjected to political purges the following year by Kim Il-Sung, where many wound up being sent to prison camps. Prisoners of these camps face terrible conditions and unspeakable horrors. In 2002, documentarian Nicholas Bonner released the film, The Game of Their Lives, chronicling the victory of the 1966 World Cup team over Italy. The film features interviews with seven members of the team who are alive and well in North Korea. However, other team member’s whereabouts are unknown.
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.
HRNK staff members and interns wish to dedicate this program to our colleague Katty Chi. A native of Chile and graduate of the London School of Economics, Katty became a North Korean human rights defender in her early 20s. Katty was chief of international affairs with the North Korea Strategy Center (NKSC) in Seoul from 2010 to 2014 and worked with the Seoul Office of Liberty in North Korea (LinK) from 2019 to 2020. A remarkable member of our small North Korean human rights community, Katty brought inspiration and good humor to all. Katty passed away in Seoul this past May, at the young age of 32. She is survived by her parents and brother living in Chile. With the YPWP series, we endeavor to honor Katty’s life and work.