Photo: Getty / Lars Baron
North Korea is one of the most closed states in the entire world, with foreign media blocked and official media rarely offering a fair or detailed view of the outside world. It’s also a country where few travel overseas — and where most who do travel under the watchful eye of official minders.However, North Korea’s presence at the Summer Olympic Games has been pretty much consistent since 1972, despite the fact that attending the games requires sending a large number of athletes, trainers and other support staff overseas, and the fact that reporting on the games requires acknowledging, however slightly, when North Korea is beaten by other countries.
The games clearly mean a lot to the athletes (take, for example, the look of joy on Kim Un Guk when he set a record for weightlifting the other day) and to the North Korean public back home, judging by the coverage from North Korea’s state news agencies.
But what is life actually like for the athletes?
For one thing, the sexy, 15-condoms-per-athlete Olympic village other countries enjoy doesn’t seem to be an option for athletes from the hermit kingdom. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics athletes were reportedly not allowed out of their Olympic compound except for training or events. John Canzano of the Oregonian spoke to some from the North Korea camp and found that athletes were not allowed to mingle with other athletes, and sight-seeing and other cultural events were strictly banned.
That was an event held in China, one of North Korea’s few allies in the world. China, at the time, was known for sending back North Korean refugees to the country, so fears of defection should have been relatively low (China have appeared to be reversing this policy since).
Great Britain is by no stretch of the imagination a North Korean ally, and it appears that the North Korean Olympic athletes are under a similar lock-down. Members of the North Korean woman’s soccer team are not even allowed to give interviews to reporters, and the responses from their coaches are bland to the point of insult, the AP reports. Some North Korean athletes haven’t bothered to show up to ceremonies where they would be awarded a medal.
Then there’s the pressure put on the athletes, which puts even the Chinese system to shame. Reuters reports that successful athletes could enjoy cash, cars, houses and the coveted membership of the Workers Party of Korea. Losers don’t get the same, of course, and there are rumours of a worse fate for those who fail particularly badly — some even ended up in prison camps, according to reports in South Korean media.
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