A sixteen year-old diver named Kim Kuk-hyang made history this week at the World Aquatics Championship. The teenager won first place in the 10m platform dive, becoming the first ever North Korean to win a Gold Medal at this competition.
After winning the event, Kuk-hyang told the press: “”It gives me great pleasure to meet the expectations of my government and our great leader.”
Of course, that’s what you’d expect any teenager to say after winning a major sporting event and making history. Of course, the life of a North Korea child-athlete is no ordinary life. Kuk-hyang is expecting to compete in the Olympics. The country has won several Olympic gold medals, but none in aquatic sports; as a result, there will be an immense pressure placed on this young man.
At an early age, North Korean athletes are selected by the Communist Party’s Sports Committee. From then on, they attend specialized school and their lives consist primarily of training for competitions like these. According to ABC, when athlete return from the Olympics, the winners are treated like heroes and given gifts. When athletes lose, they’re are forced to train even harder. It’s heavily reported that unsuccessful athlets are forced to work in labor camps, though these may be rumors perpetuated as a form of South Korean propaganda.
Athletes have a long history of defecting at the Olympics and the North Korean athletic team works tirelessly to prevent such escapes. Minders are assigned to monitor all of the athletes and their schedules are subject to rigorous oversight. Unfortunately, the physical limitations are the least of these competitors worries.
The North Korean government, “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” (DPRK), have extreme punishments for those who defect. The State Security Department punishes the families of defectors, often sending them to concentration camps. This practice has been documented for years, but North Korean official refuse to comment on any of their protocols. When the DPRK do allow their athletes to discuss procedure, it’s usually heavily scripted. For example, gold-medallist Om Yun Chol commented on North Korean training methods during an interview at the London Olympics in 2014.
“Have you ever heard that an egg can break a stone?” asked Yun-Chol. “The respected marshal has told us that if we add an idea to an egg … we can break the stone with that egg.”
This seems like an impressive statement coming from a champion weightlifter. More than likely, a North Korean PR team worked tirelessly on developing that line. It sounds wise, like some classic Zen kōan. I’m sure the listener is meant to think about what the idea might be; to contemplate the strength of “the people”, the power of a united national front, the will of the worker’s party crushing capitalism (yada yada yada).
In reality, I think the idea is simple: they’re adding fear.
[Photo via BBC.com]