In an inter-Korean football match on Sunday, the North Korean women’s football team outshone the South Korean team, winning 2-1. How do North Koreans refugees feel about the matter?
We recently attended a meeting of North Korean exiles. When the business of the meeting had concluded, the group relaxed to chat around the table with a beer and our correspondent offered a question. ‘If North Korea and South Korea were to compete in a sporting event, which side would you cheer for?’
Intriguingly, the responses were pretty evenly divided. Eight people said they’d cheer for South Korea, and the remaining six said they’d support the North.
When asked ‘Why would you cheer for South Korea?’ the eight North Koreans gave very similar answers. One said, ‘A sport should be a sport regardless of politics.’
‘But if North Korean athletes win in an international competition, they can never speak freely, they must say they won because Kim Jong-il is great or because they wanted to repay him with their loyalty.’
‘They are trained beforehand to answer like that. I don’t like hearing that, so much so that I’d rather they just lose.’
On the other hand, the North Koreans who said they’d cheer for North Korea gave an answer which overturned expectations. One said he would cheer the athletes out of compassion because he felt sorry for them.
‘If the athletes were to return to North Korea without a medal, it is plain to see what would happen. As soon as they return, they will return to struggle with their daily lives.’
‘Especially if they lose to countries like the US, Japan, or South Korea, who the regime has branded eternal enemies, it is not considered only a loss in terms of competence, but a treacherous lack of loyalty to the regime.’
‘Psychological and political examination follows, and if weaknesses are detected, they may be completely removed from the sports world for subversive attitudes.’
An older North Korean refugee with direct knowledge of sport in the North said he sometimes cries while watching North Korean athletes run with all their might; he sees in their efforts a desperation not merely to win, but to survive.
North Koreans know that the North Korean athletes are not just people who can compete in sports, but a political tool of the Party.
Though the penalties for failure are harsh, the rewards for success are generally not great. Recognition is limited to medals, TVs, refrigerators, clothes, and food items.
During the arduous march of the mid-1990s, Kim Jong-il ordered that prize money be returned to the athletes following victory in an international competition.
However, they received gifts of foreign cars and luxury apartments in the name of Kim Jong-il, and not of the competition.
By the end of the evening, the consensus was expressed by one of the men: ‘I hate the North Korean regime, but I wholeheartedly support the North Korean athletes.’