North Koreans excited but cautious over participation in Pyeongchang Olympics

As part of its announcement to send athletes to the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, North Korea also plans to send a taekwondo demonstration team, spectators (fans), official observers, artists, and other delegates, signalling a thaw in the long-strained relations between North and South Korea.

Residents of North Korea are also becoming excited at the prospect of their country’s athletes competing in the Olympics in South Korea. Excitement was building even before details of this week’s North-South talks were published in the January 10 edition of the state-run publication Rodong Sinmun, as people took hints given in Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address as a sure sign that the North would join the Winter Games.

“People are saying that we have such long winters and therefore great athletes in sports like ice hockey and figure skating, so surely they must be good enough to compete in the Olympics,” a source in Pyongyang told Daily NK on January 10.

While North Koreans hope to see their country represented on the world stage, the reality is that the caliber of their athletes may not be up to par. According to the source, residents who are more aware of this fact are expressing doubts that despite Kim Jong Un’s political efforts, not many athletes may be able to participate.

Some are also criticizing the government for using the athletes as a political bargaining chip. “Most people are aware of the fact that even if an athlete wins a gold medal, the regime will just confiscate and divert it to state coffers,” the source said.

The North Korean taekwondo demonstration team puts on a performance during the opening
ceremony of the 2017 Taekwondo World Championships in Muju, South Korea. Image: Yonhap

The North’s plan to send a taekwondo demonstration team is being seen by some as an attempt to make up for their potential shortage of qualifying winter sports athletes.

Speaking about the North Korean people’s attitude towards its taekwondo athletes, the source said, “People believe that ‘taekwondo holds the vigor of Chosun (North Korea),’ and that the traditional taekwondo outfit alone is enough to defeat the opponent’s spirit. (The government) hopes the taekwondo demonstration team will steal away some of the spirit of the other countries’ athletes, all of whom have spent countless years preparing for the games.”

Taekwondo has received particular attention throughout the years of the Kim family regime, frequently highlighted in official propaganda. A separate source in Pyongyang noted, “North Korea has harped on the Kim family’s affiliation with the martial art, building a large Taekwondo Center in Pyongyang (which includes a museum section) including propaganda explicitly connecting the Kims with the sport. The people are thus very familiar with it and the authorities are looking forward to the chance to send their taekwondo demonstration team and promote the idea that it originated in North Korea,” the source explained.
As for participation in actual winter Olympics events, the North has in the past announced plans to send athletes to at least three events. At an International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting in Peru last September, North Korea’s Olympic Committee member Chang Ung said that the figure skating pair and short track speed skating athletes are set to participate in Olympic qualifying events, and cross-country skiing may also be possible.
As of now, the figure skating pair – Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik – are the only North Korean athletes to have qualified for the Pyeongchang Olympics, but they actually failed to confirm their registration for the games before the deadline. However, the IOC on January 9 announced that it would extend the deadline for North Korea, opening the door for the pair to compete in Pyeongchang.

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