Olympics Round-up

Kent Boydston (PIIE)



With all the missile and nuclear tests, the Olympics seem like eons ago. But having gone out on a limb predicting Olympic medal counts and poking fun at the alleged goals Kim Jong-un set for his delegation, we thought it would still be worthwhile to review how reality lined up with expectations.

Recall, before the opening of last month’s Rio Olympic Games Marc Noland published his Rio Olympics medal forecasts based on a statistical model that factors in variables such as past performance, socio-economic factors, geography, population, income, and host-country status. He also made Asia-specific predictions and published a post-mortem report here.

The North Koreans, for their part, slightly outperformed their forecasted outcome by earning seven medals—2 gold, 2 silver, and 3 bronze. (The PIIE models do not disaggregate medal predictions down to specific medal type but predicted that the DPRK would take home 5-6 medals total). In Rio North Korea was at an advantage since the country is particularly strong in weightlifting events, from which Russia was completely banned at the last minute due to doping violations and which, consequently, the PIIE model was unable to take into account. Indeed, all of these results should be taken as tentative—at Rio athletes were still being stripped of medals earned in London, four years earlier, on account of doping violations and weightlifting is the sport that invented doping. Let’s hope those North Korean medalists were clean.

Not surprisingly, North Korea failed to win the five gold medals that Kim Jong-un allegedly demanded of Choe Ryong-hae, Vice Chairman of the ruling Workers' Party and Chairman of the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission. The more interesting story about Choe, however, was that Kim Jong-un dispatched him to Brazil for the games with the ostensible goal of riding the wave of international good will of the Olympic Games to see who would play ball with him diplomatically. It would not be the first time that Choe has welded international athletic competition with diplomacy. He was part of the high-level delegation that met with South Korean officials during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, which led to a temporary inter-Korean thaw.

In Rio, Choe attended a GALA on the night of the opening ceremony with international big wigs—Ban Ki-moon and French President Francois Hollande were purportedly in attendance—but he does not appear to have gleaned much diplomatic fruit from all the hobnobbing. Choe purportedly tried to get a meeting with Brazilian Interim President Michel Temer but was rebuffed. And if he had been trying to use the Olympics to smooth over tensions with South Korea, there were no takers for the gambit from Seoul. Instead, Choe spent his time visiting Rio’s tourist sites and spectating at events where North Korean athletes participated.

While Choe accomplished very little in terms of diplomacy and fostering good will, stories of North Korean athletes themselves were more of a mixed bag. North Korean Olympic shooter Kim Song Guk, who earned a bronze medal after losing to his South Korean rival Jin Jong-0h, stated, "If the two (Koreas) become one, we could have a bigger medal... And if both the gold and bronze medals came from one Korea, it could have been a much bigger win." And North Korean gymnast Hong Un Jong and Lee Eun-ju of South Korea appeared friendly together as Lee took a selfie that later went viral. But not all selfie photo ops were welcome: North Korean archer Kang Un-Ju refused to take a photo with her South Korean Chang Hye-Jin counterpart although she appeared friendly enough in a competition photo with Chang later. Meanwhile, Samsung Galaxy S7 cell phones that were distributed to all 11,200 athletes competing in the Games were confiscated by a North Korean team manager, lest North Korean athletes get their hands on the South Korean products.

There are very few opportunities for North and South Koreans to meet, making interactions between North and South Korean athletes at international competitions especially high profile. South Koreans must seek approval from the ROK government before meeting with North Koreans, even abroad, although spontaneous interactions are not strictly forbidden though they require an account to be submitted to the MoU. For North Koreans, there was some concern that gymnast Hong Un Jong might face retribution back home for being too friendly with her South Korean counterpart. Writing for the BBC, Michael Madden dismissed the idea. Hong has been photographed hugging US gymnast— and now gold medalist—Simone Biles back in 2014. Madden notes that the worst that usually happens to North Korean athletes who fail is that they simply don’t get mentioned in the media.

In the broader picture though, do the Olympics really bring people together? Or as David Large argues in Foreign Policy, do they simply serve as a conduit for unbridled, rabid nationalism? At least for inter-Korean relations, international athletic competition has generally been a moderate zone. (Ask a South Korean if they’d rather see a North Korean team or a Japanese team perform well on the international stage). International competition offers one of the few opportunities for inter-Korean exchange, but these are very limited interactions, and if this is all we can cling to as harbingers of hope right now, inter-Korean relations really are in a sad state. 

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