July 31, 2012 / 6:41 PM / 8 years ago

Olympics-Luxury lifestyle for N.Korean winners, losers may fear fate

LONDON, July 31 - It’s still only Day Four at the London Olympics but one early surprise is that North Korea are fifth in the medals table, a performance that will bring good news to the pariah state - and not a little relief for the athletes themselves.

The country’s three gold and one bronze medals will spread a bit of joy to a people who have seen little of that lately - the North is currently battling floods that have killed scores of people and turned tens of thousands out of their homes.

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however.

International sanctions over its nuclear weapons programme, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbour China.

The gold medallists are hoping their feats will cover the country in glory and please its people and one man in particular - new leader Kim Jong-un, who only recently took over as head of the family dynasty on the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

“As an athlete I believe by winning the gold medal I was able to glorify my nation and give support to the people of my nation, so I am really happy,” judoka An Kum-ae told reporters in London after winning gold.

“I believe I gave some happiness and joy to our leader, Kim Jong-un,” she said fervently.

The North’s official KCNA news agency reported that her family “burst into cheers and tears” watching her on television.

“She owes her success to the great leaders, the benevolent social system and the Workers’ Party of Korea,” said her father An Jong-ryon. “All my neighbours are calling at my house to offer congratulations to my family.”

Kim Un-kuk, who set a weightlifting world record on the way to winning gold on Monday, said he was anxious for news of his triumph to reach Pyongyang.

For good reason: a life of luxury awaits the Olympians as reward for glorifying the Stalinist state. Elite athletes receive cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea.


The consequences of sporting failure are far less palatable.

The coach of the national soccer team, who lost all three of their 2010 World Cup games, was reportedly expelled from the Worker’s Party and forced to become a builder for his “betrayal”.

A South Korean newspaper quoted an intelligence source as saying those who performed badly were even sent to prison camps, though that has been disputed by North Korean athletes.

North Korean defector Lee Chang-soo told Reuters in March that the difference between winning and losing an international competition could even be a matter of life and death.

A bronze medal winner at the 1989 World Judo Championships, Lee’s life was turned upside down when he lost to a South Korean in the final of the 1990 Beijing Asian Games.

South and North Korea fought a fratricidal war in 1950-53 and the two countries remain technically at war since the conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

Defeated North Koreans — especially those who lose to South Koreans — were forced to work in “gulags” where rights group Amnesty International says 200,000 citizens are forced to work with little food under threat of execution, he said.

Lee was sent to a coal mine for his failure.

Information is hard to come by in the almost hermetically sealed and suspicious state, but North Korea watchers point to signs that Kim Jong-un could be cut from a different cloth than his father and grandfather before him, founder Kim Il-sung.

He has shown a more human side, appearing with his wife on television and presenting a significantly less dour image. A source with ties to North Korea and China told Reuters he is gearing up to experiment with economic reforms.

Whether the changes will make a difference for North Korea’s returning athletes is anybody’s guess, however. (Additional reporting by Park Ju-min in Seoul; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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