Does North Korea throw its Olympic athletes into gulags?

Photo Credit: KCNA North Korean athlete wins gold in 2014 Asian Games

North Korea’s boy-king Kim Jong-un wants his country’s Olympic team to bring back five gold medals from the Rio Olympics. That’s a lot of pressure from a regime rumored to have tortured previous failed Olympic athletes, and that has allegedly banished them to remote parts of the country and forced them to do backbreaking labor in the coal mines.

So is there a real possibility of team North Korea getting tortured or jailed for not bringing back the gold?

If so, it wouldn’t be the first time that defeated athletes were tortured by crazed dictators. In the 1990s and early 2000s, despised Iraqi depot Saddam Hussein’s son Uday had the nation’s soccer team thrown in prison, beaten and whipped on the soles of their feet for several days as punishment for losing games.

While it’s nearly impossible to independently confirm, rumors have swirled for years about what happens to North Korean Olympians when they don’t win gold metals.

Some media has reported that when athletes who’ve disappointed the regime get back to North Korea, they are taken to a review board, where they are forced to criticize their own performance. If it’s determined that there’s any lack of loyalty or love for the North Korean leader – who has a god-like status in the country – they are banished to the countryside, according to some sources.

The North Korean countryside is a bad place to be. Those living in the capital, Pyongyang, are an elite chosen few who have access to food. But in the countryside, people are forced to fend for themselves, and getting access to food, medical care and education is a struggle there.

Lee Chang-soo, a former North Korean Olympian who defected to the South, said North Korea gets especially angry when one of their athletes loses to South Korea or the U.S. – the North’s two archenemies.

When he won gold, he was given an apartment and showered with gifts from the state, including a Mercedes. But when he lost in a Judo match against a South Korean at the 1990 Beijing Asian games, he was allegedly banished from Pyongyang and sent to a coal mine to work as punishment.

Luckily, one high level official was a fan, and gave him a chance to leave the mines and compete in the 1991 Olympics in Spain. That official was Jang Song-thaek, former no.2 man in North Korea, who was purged and executed in 2013 when his nephew, Kim Jong-un, came to power.

Once he made it to Spain, Lee wondered why he was competing at all, reasoning that if he wins gold, the medal belongs to North Korea and not him. And if he loses, he could be punished by having to work in a coal mine or even worse.

So he defected. But while the North Korean regime was not able to punish him, they got revenge on his entire family left behind in North Korea. He brother died in a lumber camp, and the rest of his family was taken away to a coal mine, where they were forced to work.

But while this story appears to be true, some experts have noted the difficulty of determining exactly what’s going on inside one of the world’s most isolated nations.

Jenna Gibson, director of communications at the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute, told Borderless News Online it’s hard to prove whether athletes get sent to prison camps or the like for not doing well at the Olympics.

That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, but no one has been able to prove that it does.

“What we can say for sure it’s not something that happens across the board. There are several examples of bronze medalists appearing in subsequent competitions, so at the very least failing to bring back gold is not an automatic ticket to a gulag. Wrestler Yang Kyong-il, for example, won a bronze in London, and will compete again this week in Rio,” she said.

Interestingly, it seems that while sports are popular in North Korea, they aren’t necessarily as concerned with winning gold medals as they may have been in the past. Because it’s rare for North Korea to enter big international competitions, they are often happy just to be represented, she said.

In the past, the regime was careful only to show edited versions of successful competitions. However, in 2010 they aired a World Cup soccer match with Portugal live, in part because it was their first appearance in the World Cup since 1966.

So even though it was risky to show the game live in case of a loss (the team lost 7-0 in the end), the regime was still content to air it because it showed that North Korea was good enough to compete in the tournament.

Of course, gold is preferred and makes for better propaganda, but it seems that the regime is still pleased just to be represented in big-name competitions, she said.

Sports play an important role in daily life in North Korea, and are used by the regime as a tool to release people’s frustration about the day-to-day difficulties of living in the impoverished nation. Sports are also considered more important than academics for high school boys, in order to prepare them to fight in the nation’s million-man army. 

In North Korea, champion athletes are praised by the regime and can receive luxury cars like Mercedes — in a country where most people don’t even have a car at all — and are trumpeted as national heroes. They are used for propaganda to show the North’s superiority, in a country that tells its citizens that they are a pure race and that North Korea is a mighty superpower.

Interestingly, most athletes who have gained medals in major sporting events are female. North Korean women athletes have made achievements in events such as weightlifting, soccer and judo, which some North Korea watchers say is a miracle, since the impoverished country’s athletes only have access to outdated facilities and sports technology.


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