We find ourselves in the final week of the 2016 Olympic games in Rio, and a highlight of these games was watching two gymnasts from North and South Korea take a photo together, an image offering hope to people around the world that peace can be achieved between these two countries. But despite the attention and medals garnered by North Korea’s Olympic delegation, athletes from North Korea face an uncertain future back home.
The North Korean team will finish with a total of seven medals (two gold, three silver, and two bronze), as the team has no athletes scheduled to compete in the remaining events. As reported by Adam Taylor in a recent Washington Post article, the country’s communist dictator, Kim Jong-un, had ordered the North Korean team of 31 athletes to bring home five gold medals, which would have exceeded by one the team’s previous total from London in 2012.
“I am not a hero in North Korea, because I didn’t win the gold,” said Om Yun-chol, who earned a silver medal in weightlifting on day two of the Games. Said without any degree of self-deprecation, or with the typical American “Just doing my job” humility, the comment would be comedic (and would echo Ricky Bobby’s maxim from the movie Talladega Nights: “If you ain’t first, you’re last”). The truth of Om’s statement, however, reveals the tragic reality of life within the Hermit Kingdom, as a subject to a family dynasty of a nightmarish character.
Having at this point disappointed Kim’s dreams of gold, what is the team to do? What would you do? As VOC’s own Naphtali Rivkin has observed, athletes from socialist states have a tendency to defect during international competitions, especially during the Olympics. And yet, there have been no defections from North Korea during any of the Games in which they have participated—is it possible we will see the first this year?
Unfortunately for these athletes, however, the degree of control exercised over them by the state security services is no less abroad than it is at home—and in fact, it might even be greater. Moreover, they have left behind them loved ones who would be punished were they to escape. That the excellence of North Korea’s athletes will go unrecognized simply because they were not the very best in the world on that particular day, simply highlights yet again the degrading character of socialist regimes.
To hear more stories on the trials of Olympic athletes, check out our Witness Project video on Daniel Magay, a 1956 Olympic Gold Medalist who defected to the United States after his home country of Hungary was invaded by the Soviet Union.