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After London 2012: Returning a Risk for North Korean Athletes

  • Kristin Wright Open Doors USA
  • 2012 10 Aug
After London 2012: Returning a Risk for North Korean Athletes

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.”

The poverty-struck nation of 25 million has been afforded the opportunity to watch five hours a day of live Olympic coverage – although viewing is of course limited to those with electricity. Featured interviews on North Korean television shows citizens proclaiming their adoration for Kim Jong Un.

Yang Moo Jin, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says that North Koreans have a lot resting on their Olympic performances. “North Korea is giving their best performance,” he says. “It’s the first Olympics since the Kim Jong Un regime took over, so they’re trying to use it to boost morale for their people and unite them.”

According to the North Korea Freedom Coalition, a Washington, D.C.-based group advocating for human rights in North Korea, “Human rights in North Korea are virtually non-existent.” The group reports that “the government regulates individual lives from speech, opinion, and thought, to employment, travel, and food rations,” and says that “hundreds of thousands have fled to China and other neighboring countries to seek subsistence.”

The North Korea Freedom Coalition advocates for prisoners of conscience in North Korea, as well as those who have tried to escape. The group says that “China continues to forcibly repatriate North Koreans to a fate that includes imprisonment where they may experience torture, medical and chemical experiments, forced abortions, infanticide, starvation, and hard labor.”

Could the prospect of facing these horrific circumstances be driving some of the relentless praise for Kim Jong Un from the nation’s Olympians? As the Olympics wind down, there seems to be no end in sight for the praise directed at the nation’s “Dear Leader.” Om Yun Chol won gold in the men's 56-kilogram weightlifting. "There are no secrets," he said later. "The reason for my improvement and how I won the gold medal is [due] to the warm love of the Great Leader Kim Jong Il and the Great Comrade Kim Jong Un."

Kristin WrightKristin Wright is a columnist and contributing writer at, where she focuses on global human rights and religious freedom issues. Kristin has covered topics such as bride trafficking in North Korea, honor killings in Pakistan, the persecution of members of minority faiths in Iran, and the plight of Syrian refugees. She has visited with religious minorities in Pakistan, worked with children at risk in Mumbai's “Red Light” district, and interviewed individuals on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Kristin can be contacted via her website at or email at

Publication date: August 10, 2012