North Korea’s Olympic athletes are thrilling their countrymen with surprising success in winning medals and they are attributing their success to their Dear Leader Kim Jong Un.
But others, including former North Korean athletes who have defected, suggest the success of the country’s small contingent of athletes at the games may be the result of a policy of training them from a very young age at specialized schools, backed up by rewards like cars and refrigerators for winners and the threat of labor camps for losers.
North Korea ranks 14th in the overall medal count, but fifth in terms of the number of gold medals with four.
The country won two golds in men’s weightlifting, one in women’s weightlifting and one in women’s judo. It also captured a bronze medal in women’s weightlifting.
The communist nation has 56 athletes competing in 11 sports. Its hopes for additional medals lie in boxing, wrestling, diving, table tennis, judo, and archery. The best Olympic result in the past was four gold medals and five bronzes in Barcelona 1992.
Joyful residents in North Korea gather to watch the games on huge outdoor screens and public places with television connection.
"After witnessing the gold medal at the Olympics, my heart is unutterably happy and my pride (in our nation) is growing," an unidentified woman said on state television news.
That pride is exactly what the country’s new 28 year-old leader Kim Jong Un is looking for. He has taken control of the impoverished nation of 25 million after his father Kim Jong Il passed away last December. Decades of famine have left many North Koreans bitter and analysts say this Olympic Games’ fever is a perfect opportunity to generate loyalty and devotion among his subjects.
Gold medalist Kim Un-Guk, who set an Olympic record in 62-kilogram weightlifting, dutifully attributed his triumph to their leader Kim Jong Un.
"I won first place because the shining Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un gave me power and courage," he told reporters in London.
An Kum-Ae, who won her gold in the women’s judo 52-kilogram division, said, “I cannot be any happier than right now for I can give my gold medal to our great leader, Kim Jong Un.”
Woo-Young Lee, a professor at University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says, “Athletes in North Korean society are revered as elites and they are managed, trained, and supported on a national level.”
Hand-picked by the Communist Party’s Sports Committee, the athletes are trained at very young ages and registered at specialized schools which provide “daily meals and spending money at times,” said Gu-Kyeong Bang, a defector living in South Korea.
Secret to North Korea’s Olympic Success
Bang was a student athlete in Taewondo in the North. Training involved four hours of “ideological education” per week aimed at cultivating loyalty to the leader.
"They play with a different mind set," said another North Korean defector to the South, Kim Yo-Han. "An absolute loyalty towards the country and the leader is the core foundation of the North Korean athletes’ sportsmanship."
Kim’s father was a soccer coach and mother was a rhythmic gymnastics coach in the North.
Upon returning home, gold medal athletes like Kim Un-Guk and An Gum-Ae would be rewarded with handsome prize money, an apartment, a car, and additional perks like refrigerators and television sets.
But most of all, they will be rewarded with a huge jump in social status with the title of “hero” or “people’s athlete.”
But poor performances, especially losing to their archenemy nations like the United States or South Korea, have consequences. Rumors of athletes being sent directly to labor camps upon arriving home are not confirmed, but it is a common procedure to open “review meetings” after the sports events in which participants “assess” their own and each other’s games, said Kim Yo-Han.
If during that process the person is determined “disloyal” to their Dear Leader, the athlete is likely to be expelled from the sports organization and at times sent to labor camps.
Yunjoo Lim and Sungeun Lee contributed to this report