Chief South Korean delegate Chun Hae Sung (Ministry of Unification) briefs the
media in downtown Seoul after working-level talks with North Korea on January 17.
The North Korean delegation visiting South Korea for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will potentially be the largest group to cross the demilitarized zone in decades. But as the number of athletes and taekwondo, cheer squad, and Samjiyon Orchestra members grows, so too will the number of North Korean security agents needed to monitor and report on these participants.
Lee Ji Young, a defector and formerly a national athlete for North Korea, told Daily NK on January 18 that “the group that they will send to the games will definitely include state security agents.”
“It has always been that way,” she said, “and they will do it this time as well. The number of security agents will increase to accommodate the number of other attendees.”
A common way that the North accomplishes this is to register its security agents as reporters. During the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, North Korea dispatched security agents in this way, although they were seen watching and directing the movements of the athletes and other delegates. Then, during family reunions in October 2015, there was a moment when South Korean reporters swarmed around an emotional and crying North Korean participant, upon which several North Koreans with ‘Reporter’ arm bands stepped in to block and caution the South Korean press.
“A considerable number of supporters including medical staff, cheer squad members, reporters, and other staff will actually be State Security agents,” said Seo Jae Pyong, head of the Association of North Korean Defectors. “The ratio will be at least one agent per ten participants.”
The primary mission of the security agents will be to watch the words and actions of the participants to discourage them from saying anything disparaging about the North Korean system. The agents will also try to prevent any of them from being influenced by South Korean or other foreign concepts that could damage their ideological integrity. All participants will receive strict guidelines for behavior during the visit, and security agents will be there to step in and warn or punish any deviations from these expectations.
The North Korean participants will also receive extensive ideological training before their trip to the Olympics. They will be trained on how to react in situations where foreign press members suddenly try to speak with them, and in general will be forbidden from communicating with any South Koreans or foreigners.
Participants will also be split up into small groups of two or three individuals that will be required to watch each other’s movements and report on and criticize each other later. The goal is to make it extremely difficult for any North Koreans to defect by escaping their quarters or even darting away from their group in public.
Defector and former national athlete Lee Ji Young said that “ideological training is mandatory before going abroad for competitions. During this stage, they weed out any individuals with ideological deficiencies or who they suspect may cause a problem abroad.”
Seo Jae Pyong added that “to thoroughly demonstrate their loyalty to Kim Jong Un, many will at this point purposefully lambast South Korea’s politics and society.”
North cancels ‘observer group’
In a separate development, North Korean officials signaled in working-level talks on January 17 that they were withdrawing the participation of an “observer group” that was initially announced during the January 9 high-level talks. Shortly following this development, press reports began to question what exactly was meant by the term “observer group.”
South Korean Ministry of Unification officials confirmed on January 10 that the group would comprise sports officials from the North who had expressed interest in personally visiting Olympics facilities and sporting event locations.
“The North Korean side informed us of their initial plans to send an ‘observer team’ to inspect the sports facilities, but they have notified us that they have reconsidered and decided to no longer send this group,” chief South Korean delegate in the recent talks Chun Hae Sung said.
While the move has come as a surprise to some, there may be a simple explanation. Kim Jong Un may have initially expressed interest in the South’s advanced winter sports facilities, but could have also canceled the idea just as easily. In any case, the North Korean media did not report on the observer group in its coverage of the January 9 high-level talks.
“It is Kim Jong Un’s style to first order his negotiators to win the maximum amount of concessions, which in this case meant (lead North Korean delegate) Ri Son Kwon guaranteeing a spot for the observation team,” one high-level defector said on condition of anonymity. “But they may have realized that it would not look good for them to be going around inspecting facilities.”
The cancellation of the observer team may in the end be related to the North’s broader intentions behind their participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics.
“The North is on a major charm offensive now in connection with the Olympics, and they see the art troupes as the most effective tools towards this goal,” said Dr. Oh Gyeong Seop of the Korea Institute for National Unification. “The observer team was simply not necessary for plan, so they canceled it.”