North Korea and South Korea are headed for what may be their best summer Olympics in two decades, as athletes from the communist north won the most gold medals since 1992.
North Korea, currently ranked 11th among more than 200 participating countries, has won four golds, the most since the Barcelona games, and one bronze in judo and weightlifting. South Korea is in fourth place with 10 gold medals, four silver and six bronze. Combined, the countries are two golds short of the 16 they won in 1992.
Technically still at war, North Korea and South Korea have been participating as separate nations in international sporting events. Outnumbered by a South Korean squad that is more than four times bigger, North Korean athletes are competing in 11 events from weightlifting to synchronized swimming under the watch of Kim Jong Un, their new leader who is solidifying control over the isolated and impoverished nation after taking power in December.
“North Korea is giving their best performance,” Yang Moo Jin, a Seoul-based professor at University of North Korean Studies, said by phone. “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.”
Both Koreas typically perform better in the first week because the Olympics schedule is front-loaded with sports the nations are strong in, such as archery, judo and shooting. South Korea won three golds in each of archery and shooting and two in each of fencing and judo. The remaining events for South Korea include men’s soccer, shooting, weightlifting and boxing, while North Korean synchronized swimmers and divers are competing for more medals. The London games end Aug. 12.
South Korea added a gold yesterday after Jin Jongoh topped the men’s 50-meter pistol shooting. He’d already won the 10-meter gold.
Female weightlifter Rim Jong Sim became North Korea’s latest gold medalist on Aug. 1. The news “sent another pleasure” to North Koreans, the state-run Korean Central News Agency reported in an English-language dispatch the next day.
“It was so ridiculous for Western media to guess that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would snatch only one silver medal” at the London Games, Kim Chang Bom, a North Korean citizen in Pyongyang, was cited as saying in the report.
North Korea will receive more than 3,000 hours of live and recorded television coverage of the London Games through a licensing arrangement between the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union and the country’s national broadcaster KRT, ABU cited Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, as saying in a statement on July 24.
North Korea is allowing five hours a day of Olympics coverage on TV, although citizens are having trouble watching the games because of a power shortage, Daily NK, a Seoul-based media organization with contributors inside the communist country, reported on Aug. 2, citing Ri Kwang Chol from KRT and unidentified people. Video footage aired in North Korea also unusually has shown South Korean athletes winning golds, according to the report.
South Korea’s support during the previous administration under the so-called “Sunshine Policy” of engaging North Korea helped the communist country to improve its athletes’ performance, Lee Woo Young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said by phone.
“You need money, information and skills and tips from others to improve your athletic performance,” he said. “When isolated and without money, there’s only so much North Korea could have done.”
Inter-Korean sports and arts programs received greater funding following the 2007 implementation of the policy, resulting in an increase in the number of joint soccer matches, training sessions and cheerleading opportunities, according to the South Korean Culture Ministry’s 2010 White Paper.
Such interaction almost came to a halt after North Korea was found by an international panel to be responsible for torpedoing the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, in March 2010, according to the report. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has rolled back the broader policy of embracing the North.
Under the Western-educated Kim, believed to be not yet 30 years old and a basketball fan, North Korea may expand its sporting industry and follow international trends more closely, shifting away from the art and circuses that socialist countries typically endorse, Yang said. KCNA reported last month that Kim had assumed the top military rank of marshal, with control over the country’s 1.2 million-strong army.
While the tally for medals increased, Korean athletes also became the subject of controversies in London. Two pairs of South Korean badminton players were disqualified on Aug. 1 for trying to lose a preliminary match to avoid more difficult opponents in the next round. A day earlier, Shin A Lam, a fencer from South Korea, staged a sit-down protest in tears when she lost a match after the clock was reset to one second from zero.
North Korea refused to start its game on July 25 against Colombia, as part of the London Olympic Women’s soccer tournament, after its lineup was displayed on the scoreboard along with a picture of the South Korean flag.
Play was delayed by 65 minutes and started after organizers apologized for the mistake and said steps would be taken to avoid a repeat. North Korea won 2-0.