North Korea, last Cold Warrior standing at Games

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean athletes will enter the 2008 Beijing Olympics with pluck, a soldier-like fighting spirit and a completely different concept of international sport to the one embraced by former Cold War allies.

North Korea's Kye Sun-hui holds up her national flag as she celebrates her gold medal victory over Germany's Yvonne Boenisch in the women's 57kg category competition at the World Judo Championships in Osaka, western Japan in this September 13, 2003 file picture. North Korean athletes will enter the 2008 Beijing Olympics with pluck, a soldier-like fighting spirit and a completely different concept of international sport to the one embraced by former Cold War allies. REUTERS/Eriko Sugita/Files

Eastern Bloc states used to spend heavily on sports systems that turned out Goliaths, whose victories at the Olympics were used to validate what they argued was a superior political system.

The impoverished North, however, is much happier playing the role of David where its rare victories are attributed to the teachings of pudgy leader Kim Jong-il and its losses are blamed on a playing field made unfair by its foes.

“North Korea’s paranoid nationalism can use defeat just as well as it can use victory,” said Brian Myers, an associate professor at the South’s Dongseo University who specializes in analyzing the North’s ideology.

The reclusive North spends its limited resources to inspire its masses and not to impress the outside world on the playing field.

“North Korean nationalism does not boast that North Koreans are physically superior to other races,” Myers explained. The North’s propaganda spreads the message of being morally superior.

North Korea is likely to grab a handful of medals in Beijing in sports such as judo, weightlifting or wrestling.

It has shunned overtures from the South to compete as a joint team in Beijing, which could bring it greater sports glory, because its neighbor wants to field a squad featuring the best athletes on the peninsula. The North wants equal representation.

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, South Korea won 30 medals while the North took five. Their combined 35 would have been seventh highest, just below the 37 of their mutual arch-rival Japan.

“North Korea has realized at this stage that no number of victories on the sports stage could change the country’s reputation as an economic basket case,” Myers said.


North Korea’s athletes may be better at providing the entertainment for the opening ceremony than at competing.

The North’s biggest sports spectacle is its Arirang Mass Games, a circus-like extravaganza that includes legions of teenage girl gymnasts, goose-stepping soldiers flashing taekwondo kicks and a massive flip-card animation section.

The message of the event, in which some 100,000 play a role in the performance, is that the group is North Korea’s strength, and the group reveres as well as protects the leaders of the destitute state.

Sports are often associated with organs of the ruling communist party, featuring competitions with farming collectives, factory workers and soldiers. Its best athletes are celebrated for upholding “the dignity of the nation.”

“Sports constitutes a powerful driving force in firmly preparing the entire people for national defense and labor,” its official media said, citing the teachings of state founder Kim Il-sung.

The North relishes the role of underdog. When one of its athletes or teams achieves even moderate success, it makes the most of the victory, proclaiming it a result of the state’s military-first policy and its self-reliance ideal called “juche.”

And of course, Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, who is celebrated in state propaganda for penning operas, piloting jet fighters and shooting an amazing 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf, also turns out to be a remarkable motivator for athletes.

After Jong Song-ok won the women’s marathon gold at the 1999 World Athletic Championships in Seville, state media quoted her as saying: “I ran the race picturing the great leader of our people Kim Jong-il. This greatly encouraged me and was the source of my strength.”

Kye Sun-hui, North Korean Olympic gold medalist in women’s judo, offered this testimonial, saying Kim “gave her strength, courage, matchless guts and pluck.”

Editing by Roger Crabb