When North Koreans win gold medals

Friday 19th August, 2016

North Korean weightlifting champion Rim Jong-Sim/Still from KBS

North Korea’s first gold medal in the Rio Olympics was won by weightlifter Rim Jong-Sim, who, in her press interview, stated that, “Even though I am in pain, the thought of pleasing General Kim Jong Un makes me truly happy. I wish only to run to the General now.”

The second gold medal was from gymnast Ri Se-Gwang, who was reported by Western media as the “saddest gold medallist in the world”, though in his interviews he said, “I am happy because I was able to bring victory to our army and our people, and our respected comrade Kim Jong Un.” Further, he stated that, “This gold medal is nothing to me. It will be a gift offered to the state.”

Gold medallist North Korea's Ri Se-Gwang poses on the podium of the men's vault event final of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016/ AFP

Gold medallist North Korea’s Ri Se-Gwang poses on the podium of the men’s vault event final of the Artistic Gymnastics at the Olympic Arena during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on August 15, 2016/ AFP

On the other hand, champion speed skater and gold medallist Lee Sang-Hwa said after her 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics victory in the women’s 500m speed skating competition, “I felt a great burden on my shoulders, but I am glad that I was able to overcome it all,” and that, “recalling all the difficult times leading up to this moment, I felt a momentary pang of sorrow”.

Spectators and netizens alike commented on Lee Sang-Hwa’s victory as “spectacular, even when watching for the second time”, “the greatest Olympic record”, and “a record-breaker to be proud of”.

However, North Korean escapees felt uneasy about her words. Oh Cheol-Bong, who left North Korea in 2015, stated that, “Listening to [Lee Sang-Hwa’s] interview following her gold medal win, her words felt very unfamiliar. In North Korea, an athlete would not speak of their own experiences or feelings. Instead, they would try to direct all the glory at the North Korean state.”

Indeed, North Korea’s Jong Song-Ok, the winner of the world title in the women’s marathon during the 1999 World Championships in Athletics, stated herself in her interview: “At the final moment, I thought of the General calling me to come to him, so I did not give up.” Her words became sensational in the media, and at the time it was reported that Kim Jong Il was so moved by these words that he gave her the title of ‘Revolutionary Leader’, as well as a car and house as gifts.

This is not all. In North Korea, all athletes must include the General or Great Leader in some way or another when speaking in public. Some examples include: “I was able to bring happiness to our respected comrade Kim Jong Un with a medal”, “I entered the battlefield with devotion in my heart. It is because our shining Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un gave me strength and courage”, “Comrade Kim Jong Un’s warm love and consideration was what enabled me to win a gold medal”, and, “Thinking that our great General would be watching the competition, I lifted with all my strength, till the final moment”.

Oh continued, “Lee Sang-Hwa had said in her comments that she thought of ‘her past training’ and that she felt ‘pangs of sorrow’, but if a North Korean ever said that, I would worry about their future. The only thing that would justify ‘pangs of sorrow’ in North Korea would be feelings of ‘devotion to the Leader’ or ‘gratitude towards the Party’. Only speeches offering the greatest honour and gratitude to the North Korean state are permitted, unlike Lee Sang-Hwa, who spoke about her personal feelings.”

Another escapee from Hyesan, Jung Sook-Kyung, said that as she watched this year’s Olympic Games, she was able to confirm that South Koreans were becoming increasingly comfortable on the global stage. Footage of South Korean athletes congratulating gold medallists from other countries and encouraging one another felt new, she said. According to her, North Korean athletes would not think of speaking, let alone congratulating, an athlete from another country for their achievements.

“North Korean athletes who win gold medals return home and receive compliments, such as ‘You have preserved the dignity of the fatherland and the dignity of the Party’.” In North Korea, the reality is that athletes must say that their talent was the result of their devotion to the Party; spectators must comment that the athlete was instrumental in displaying the dignity of the Party and the General.

Jung concluded: “In North Korea, it is the state that receives all the credit for the medals that athletes win as a result of their individual efforts.

“It almost feels like cheating.”


Written by Lee, Ki-Cheol.

Read in Korean.

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