The Summer Asian Games, a sports festival for some four-point-seven billion Asian people, will kick off on September 23 in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in China. There will be 483 gold medals up for grabs in the eastern Chinese city, which is hosting the Asiad after a one-year postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. South Korea is set to send its largest Asian Games delegation of 1,180 athletes and officials. At this year’s Asian Games, South Korea is aiming to reclaim second spot from Japan in the medals table, after China. North Korea also looks set to participate in the upcoming event.
Today, we’ll talk about North Korea and the Asian Games with Seong Mun-jeong, senior researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science.
North Korea has stayed away from international sports events in recent years, confining itself to home. Breaking its silence, however, the country is expected to take part in the Hangzhou Asian Games this fall.
On June 14, the General Administration of Sport of China and the Hangzhou Asian Games Organizing Committee said that all 45 members of the Olympic Council of Asia registered to compete at this year’s Asian Games. It appears that North Korea also presented a written opinion regarding its participation in the Games.
During a press conference in June, 100 days before the opening of the Hangzhou Games, the Asiad organizing committee said all 45 Olympic committees from Asian countries and regions have signed up for this year’s Asian Games. Although it did not directly mention North Korea, the announcement is interpreted as an official confirmation of North Korea’s attendance at the Asian Games, as the figure 45 includes North Korea.
North Korea’s participation in the Hangzhou Games, if it proves to be true, will mark its first appearance at a major international sporting event in five years since the 2018 Jakarta Palembang Asian Games. Since early this year, anticipation has been running high for North Korea’s registration in this year’s Asian Games.
The International Olympic Committee or IOC suspended North Korea through 2022 for withdrawing from the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 because of COVID-19 fears. As the North became free from the ban this year, the country convened a general meeting of its Olympic Committee in March to discuss plans for this year.
North Korea’s state-run Korean Central Television has also organized a program about famous sports players and leaders, including Pak Yung-sun(박영순), who was dubbed “Queen of Table Tennis” for winning the World Championships in the 1970s. North Korea’s first appearance at the Asian Games dates back to the 1970s.
North Korea first competed at the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran. It has since attended all the Asian Games, except for two occasions—the 1986 event in Seoul and the Hiroshima Asiad in 1994, when regime founder Kim Il-sung died.
The 7th Asiad held in Tehran in 1974 marked a milestone in the history of the Asian Games, as a large number of communist countries participated in the event. At the time, North Korea won 15 gold medals to rank fifth overall in the medal standings. How has the country been performing in the Asian Games afterwards?
Before the 1990s, North Korea often came in fourth in Asia. But it performed rather poorly at the Asian Games after 1990, partly due to the painful Arduous March period in the 1990s. At the Asian Games hosted by South Korean cities such as Incheon and Busan, North Korea managed to take seventh or eighth place in the medal tally. But in most other cases, it ended up in 12th, 16th and tenth.
North Korea has consistently fared well in some sports events, including shooting, judo, gymnastics, table tennis, weightlifting and wrestling. The country will stands high in global rankings in these areas. Under the instruction of former leader Kim Il-sung, North Korea designated them as “disciplines with a chance of winning.” The North has reportedly focused its investment and training in those sports.
North Korea underperformed at the Asian Games in the 1990s, when the country suffered from extreme economic difficulties, known as the Arduous March. But the North still ranks high, at least in Asia, in some sports events, which it has fostered intensively. In the current Kim Jong-un era, in particular, archery, women’s football, marathon, boxing, gymnastics and taekwondo have newly been added to the list of “disciplines with a chance of winning” at international competitions. North Korea has actually produced tangible results in those areas.
North Korea set five world records in weightlifting at the 2014 Asian Games in the South Korean city of Incheon, the first Asiad after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un assumed power. Meanwhile, North Korea won the gold medal in women’s football, beating the 2011 world cup winners Japan.
North Korean athletes who stand out in international competitions including the Asian Games are entitled to special treatment.
Athletes who perform well on the international stage can move up in social class dramatically. For example, they are given a luxurious apartment in Pyongyang, a car or old-age pensions. They could also be given the title of “hero.”
For instance, Jong Song-ok(정성옥) won the world title in the women’s marathon at the 1999 World Championships in Athletics in Seville, Spain, to bring home the country’s first ever gold medal at the World Championships. When she returned home, North Korea held a welcoming ceremony attended by one million people. She earned the title of “Heroine of the Republic” and received an apartment in Pyongyang as well as 50-thousand US dollars. She also became a delegate to the Supreme People’s Assembly, which is equivalent to South Korea’s National Assembly. She is still revered as a heroine, and she is known to work for a sports organization now.
North Korean gymnast Ri Se-gwang came to sudden prominence at the 2006 Doha Asian Games, winning a gold medal in vault. He received a home as a gift.
For athletes, however, it is the title of “Labor Hero,” along with the title of “People’s Athlete,” that is more important than gifts. The honorary title of “Labor Hero” is presented to those who provide a distinguished service in economics, culture or construction. Gymnast Ri also became “Labor Hero,” although this title is lower than the title of “Hero or Heroine of the Republic” that was given to marathoner Jong.
Once athletes become sports stars, they gain both wealth and honor. So, who will rise to stardom at the upcoming Hangzhou Asian Games?
North Korea has refused to participate in international sports competitions in recent years. As a result, its athletic performance has been kept behind closed doors.
But we can take a hint from the list of “top ten players” North Korea announces every year. In February this year, the North announced the 2022 list, which includes weightlifters, a judo player, a boxer, a wrestler and a shooter. The players making it into the list are expected to produce good results at the Hangzhou Games.
According to foreign media outlets, North Korea registered a delegation of about 200 athletes and officials with the Hangzhou Asian Games. The media did not disclose details, such as major players and sports events joined by North Korean athletes. But North Korea is expected to compete in events like weightlifting, gymnastics and wrestling, in which the country has a strong presence. Female weightlifter Ri Song-gum, who is included in the list of top players, expressed her ambition to produce results at an international competition.
South Korea also aims to win medals in the events, in which North Korea holds dominance. Therefore, South and North Korea will likely face off in many games at the Hangzhou Games. Unfortunately, the memorable scene of inter-Korean harmony at the previous Asian Games is unlikely to revive in Hangzhou.
The cold walls of inter-Korean showdowns in sports began to crumble in the 1960s, when South and North Korea held meetings to discuss the formation of a unified Korean team for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The two Koreas cheered together for their teams at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. They succeeded in entering the stadium together and cheering together at international sports events on 12 different occasions during the period between the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the 2018 Jakarta Palembang Asian Games. They were even able to field joint teams at some international competitions, including the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia.
However, cross-border sports exchanges have stopped altogether now, due to North Korea’s persistent nuclear development and international sanctions on the North.
The Asian Games have been about bringing South and North Korea together through sports.
At the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, the two Koreas rooted together for their teams for the first time.
South and North Korea marched together behind the Korean Unification Flag during the opening and closing ceremonies at the Jakarta Palembang Asian Games in 2018, when a warm breeze was blowing in inter-Korean relations. At the time, they fielded unified teams in three sports—women’s basketball, canoeing and rowing.
Their joint entrance to international sports events and the formation of joint teams delivered a message of peace and harmony to the global village. But it is very unlikely to see such a scene at the Hangzhou Asian Games, due to North Korea’s repeated missile provocations.
If North Korea participates in this year’s Asian Games, it may possibly attend the Paris Olympics next year.
COVID-19 is being treated as an endemic disease around the world. In this situation, if North Korea continues to keep its borders closed and further isolate itself, the IOC may impose a ban on North Korea again for failing to fulfill its obligation to send athletes to international events.
When the Hangzhou Asian Games are over, each sports event will hold qualifying competitions for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Countries hoping to join next year’s Olympic Games are required to earn quotas in the preparatory period for the Olympiad. I guess North Korea can participate in the Paris Olympics, which will be held in July 2024.
The Hangzhou Asian Games appear to be a prelude to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Will North Korea return to the international sports arena through this year’s Asian Games in China? The North has implied that it may attend the Paris Olympics, following the Asian Games in Hangzhou. It remains to be seen whether North Korea will maintain this position.