After London 2012: Returning a Risk for North Korean Athletes
- Friday, August 10, 2012
London 2012 marks North Korea’s most successful Olympics since 1992. The North Koreans have taken home 4 gold medals and a bronze in their most successful presentation in decades. With 56 athletes entered in 11 sports, the communist country seemed relentless in its quest to win.
Gold medalist Kim Un-Guk, among other North Korean medalists, was quick to praise North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong Un, for the victory he achieved. "I won first place because the shining Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un gave me power and courage," he said.
But what happens when North Korean athletes fail to bring home the gold? ABC News reported last week that North Korea offers athletes a carrot-and-stick approach – televisions, refrigerators and cars for winners, and labor camp sentences for losers.
The rumors aren’t confirmed, but athletes report that “review meetings” exist after the competitions, in which those found to be disloyal to North Korea’s regime are banned from competing and even sentenced to forced labor camps. With the stakes so high, many people have wondered why North Koreans don’t take the opportunity afforded by the Olympics to leave their communist homeland and seek asylum elsewhere.
But experts say that leaving North Korea is not that simple.
On NPR’s All Things Considered, Olympic historian David Wallechinsky weighed in on why North Koreans aren’t defecting as the games wind to a close. “I have actually visited North Korea and this is the most repressive country I've ever been to,” Wallechinsky said. “What they do is they threaten the families.”
Wallechinsky described speaking to Albania’s greatest athlete shortly after the fall of communism. The man told him that when he went to the 1972 Olympics there was a minder for every athlete. “They were never allowed to be alone,” he reported. “And I'm sure that's the exact same thing that the North Koreans are doing.”
Human rights experts say that North Korea’s brutal concentration camps are designed for the punishment of those found disloyal to the regime. Satellite images of the camps reveal miles of death camps that confine more than 200,000 political prisoners.
Defectors speak of horrific abuse that occurs within the camps – forced labor, torture, rape, execution. Shin Dong-hyuk grew up in a North Korean concentration camp. His father’s father had been imprisoned years before when his brother defected to South Korea. For this, Shin’s entire family had been imprisoned for generations. Shin rarely saw his mother or his father as they were separated in different parts of the camp. While he was still a child he and his father were forced to watch his mother and brother as they were executed for attempting to escape.
With such dire circumstances faced by those who oppose the regime in any way, it’s little wonder that North Korean athletes have been so quick to sing the praises of their new leader. The winner of Olympic gold in the women’s judo 52-kilogram division, An Kum-Ae, made her patriotic ambitions clear immediately. ""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," she said. "I believe I gave some happiness and joy to our leader, Kim Jong Un.”
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