After a year of missile tests and underground nuclear explosions, North Korea-watchers will spend next month following something quite different: figure skating.
It’s not exactly a respite, however. North Korea’s participation in the upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, may seem a change of pace after months of military tension. But North Korea also has a long (and at points, surprisingly successful) history in international sporting events — and it has frequently been accused of using its participation for political ends.
To get a better sense of this history, WorldViews spoke with Christopher Green, an adviser for the International Crisis Group and expert in the politics of sports on the Korean Peninsula. Green has spoken to hundreds of North Korean defectors about their views of sports and studied the way Pyongyang’s propaganda covers sporting events. The transcript below has been edited for clarity and length.
WorldViews: When you look at sort of North Korea’s domestic propaganda, are international sporting events like the Olympics prominently covered?
Christopher Green: The word prominent is relative, I think. North Korea doesn’t have a long broadcasting schedule. It’s not 24/7 cable TV. There’s not 500 channels. So, they are restricted in what they can put on in international sporting events, but they do show highlights.
They do occasionally show live sporting events, but they’re also constrained by their ideological straitjacket, which means that sports stars themselves don’t become as famous as they might be elsewhere because they have a certain structure to their political society that means that that’s not possible.
WV: So, if someone wins a gold medal, is it on the front page of the newspapers, or is it more sort of buried in the sports pages or the equivalent?
CG: No, it is the front page of the ruling-party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, and the other official publications. For example, after the 2012 Olympics, when the medal winners returned from London, they were given a bus trip through the center of Pyongyang, where all of the local people came out on to the street side, waved garlands, cheered them, then they had an official banquet, then they had a photo opportunity with the leader and . . . so yeah, they do celebrate these things in a major way.
WV: Does North Korea’s official narrative hark back to previous sporting glories — for example, winning a gold medal in a particular year?
CG: They don’t hark back to past sporting glories — you would not find a reference to the 1966 World Cup [when the North Korean men’s soccer team unexpectedly reached the quarterfinals] in contemporary North Korean media discourse. It just doesn’t happen. But victories in the present are instrumentalist for propaganda and ideological purposes by the leadership.
WV: North Korea has been surprisingly successful at the Summer Olympics. How does it pull that off?
CG: Well, I don’t think it’s always been the case. There has been a high level of investment of time and money — relatively, given the constraints on the budget of North Korea — into organized sports in recent years.
At the beginning of North Korea’s history as a separate state, sport was seen as a way to create a healthy population, active workforce and a strong military, but not necessarily as something to be competed in internationally. The 1966 success was reported in the state media, but it was not dwelt upon. More recently, it has become blindingly apparent that national pride and national strength are in part reflected in sporting success, and North Korea has embraced that.
In very recent years, they’ve invested in some fairly impressive facilities. The football [soccer] school in Pyongyang springs immediately to mind. They also have a well-paid foreign manager coaching their men’s national team. This shows the extent of their ambition — though they haven’t yielded any big successes from these particular investments, because men’s football is extremely competitive in Asia.
WV: Weightlifting and wrestling in particular, two big sports for Pyongyang’s former Soviet benefactors, have gained North Korea a lot of Olympic medals. Why is that?
CG: There was some training of North Korean weightlifters in the former socialist world in the past, so I suspect that it stems from exactly that. Where there’s a lineage that goes back in certain sports, North Koreans became good at those sports, and they’ve continued to be so. They’ve also singled out other sports, like men’s football, for extra attention in more recent years, just as China has done.
WV: Perhaps surprisingly given the climate of North Korea and the mountainous regions and things like that, North Korea has been far less successful at Winter Olympics. Why is that?
CG: When I’ve talked to resettled North Koreans living in South Korea about winter sports, they say they never really saw those things as sport. Things like skiing were things that you needed to be able to do if you lived in the mountainous parts of the country, because there was a lot of snow on the ground and there were few other ways to get around.
The idea of professionalizing that, I think, didn’t really come to mind, and of course, North Korea only had one ski hill, and not a very good one at that. Now they have three, but that’s a very, very new phenomenon.
WV: You wrote an article a few years ago that suggested the opening of these ski facilities was politically linked to the PyeongChang Games . . .
CG: What I wrote certainly implied that possibility, but I was only guessing at the time.
WV: With the benefit of hindsight, does that still hold up?
CG: Some of it does, and some of it doesn’t. I wrote about North Korea pushing, for example, the idea of co-hosting events. I think in retrospect that it is more a case of [North Korea thinking that] “this great resort in South Korea is going to be hosting the Olympics. We need to show we can compete with that,” or simply imagining the hypothetical tourist revenues it thought it could bring in from significant growth in the popularity of winter sports in Asia. I think it’s more at that level, rather than the idea of co-hosting events, which would be an enormous political and security headache for them.
WV: North Korea has certainly shown an interest in disrupting international sporting events in the South — the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air plane being the most obvious example. Was there ever a risk of that happening here?
CG: No. Much more recently, North Korea, under Kim Jong Il, disavowed terrorism. You can say that North Korea can’t be trusted in anything it says, and that’s fine, but the leader did disavow active terrorism, and big events like the World Cup [held in South Korea and Japan in 2002] passed off without that kind of incident. South Korea is quite fond of hosting international sporting events, and none of them in the 21st century have had any kind of terrorist activity associated with them. So, no, it was never really something I was concerned about.
WV: Since 1988, both Koreas have also used sporting events for gestures of reconciliation — like marching together under a unification flag at a number of Olympics. How do those gestures look now, with the benefit of hindsight?
CG: I view them as attempts to destabilize South Korean society, and destabilize the alliance between South Korea and the United States. I lived in South Korea for a long time, so I often saw it analyzed and described as attempts to keep South Korean society somewhat politicized, somewhat unstable, which is to North Korea’s advantage. If South Korean society is unified, then, in principle, it poses more of a challenge to North Korea.
Was there ever any real attempt at reconciliation? Well, I don’t think South Korea goes into its negotiations with North Korea like these thinking that this will end in a perfect reconciliation either. There’s always strategic goals for both sides.
WV: So looking at the current state of things, North Korea agreeing to participate in the 2018 PyeongChang games in South Korea, what are the strategic goals there?
CG: Pyongyang can achieve the same goal it’s achieved through other sporting engagements in the past by giving a good impression to potentially sympathetic — and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense — elements in South Korean society, who will see North Korean sportsmen and -women coming to South Korea and gain a better impression of North Korean society as a result. After several years of North Korea conducting nuclear tests, missile tests and other acts of violence that we tend to brand as “provocations,” it creates a dichotomous view of that country, which fosters instability in South Korea.
WV: And South Korea’s goal?
CG: South Korea views international sporting events as a demonstration of its maturity as a middle power, as an OECD member, and as an economically powerful member of the international community. By getting North Korean involvement in those sporting events, it brings a certain legitimacy to South Korea.
Also, extending past that, South Korea hopes to achieve a reduction in military tensions and restart separated family reunions for families broken apart by the Korean War and division of the peninsula. These are very mature goals that are enormously beneficial to the South Korean economy and society. It shows South Korea playing the role of mature partner on the Korean Peninsula.
When I see people suggesting simply that “North Korea, those wily negotiators, are taking South Korea for a ride yet again,” I think that’s an unfair — and unsophisticated — way to look at it. That does not take into account the pressures that are put on South Korea’s politicians and their leaders by South Korean society, which are the pressures of a liberal democracy. We should be a little slower to judge South Korea for the compromises and the consensuses they try to reach with North Korea at times like this.
WV: South Korean President Moon Jae-in has suggested that President Trump’s policy on North Korea over the last year helped create the environment for inter-Korean talks about the Olympics. What do you think?
CG: I think North Korea was planning to come the negotiating table with South Korea anyway. Did Trump’s pressure expedite that process? Potentially, but you only have one first of January every year, so if Kim Jung Un was going to reach out in his New Year’s address, it would have to have been now.
What Moon said in his New Year’s press conference was a very wise way to frame it, though, because it gives the Trump administration, or Trump himself, rather, a little bit of buy-in to this process — and we know Trump does like those kinds of emotional inputs. It made perfect sense that President Moon would say that. He might be right as well — maybe Trump really did make all the difference — but it seems unlikely, and we just don’t know for sure.
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