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PRINT EDITION
The Koreas will join hands at Olympics, but Kim will keep his iron grip
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It would be wrong to applaud North Korea's involvement. Cruelty and peril underpin every institution in the country, including its sporting establishment
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By CATHAL KELLY
  
  

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Thursday, January 18, 2018 – Page A1

After losing all three of its games at the 2010 World Cup, the North Korean soccer team got a little talking-to once it was home.

According to reports, the team was ritually humiliated for six hours by an audience for "betraying" the country. After the shouting ended, the players were invited on stage to submit "criticisms" of their coach, Kim Jong-hun.

Apparently, Mr. Kim was then sent to a labour camp to pay for his sporting crimes. He hasn't been heard from since.

That reception was somewhat in opposition to the sunny aspect the team and its small troupe of carefully selected fans presented to the world in South Africa.

Some players repeatedly wept during the national anthem. Their supporters - easily spotted in their matching red parkas - cheered like frothing maniacs from the beginning to end of matches, often while their team was getting the tar kicked out of it. The patriotic zeal ran so high it was jarring, although the players were perhaps more circumspect.

It's against that backdrop that it was announced on Wednesday that North Korea would be sending a contingent to next month's Pyeongchang Winter Games in concert with its enemies in the South.

The Koreans will march under a shared flag. They'll split the women's hockey team between them.

The North Koreans will send a squad of nubile cheerleaders - known locally as the "Army of Beauties" - to charm foreigners. The North may even allow use of one of the country's architectural white elephants, a brutalist ski resort called Masikryong. In a country beset by food shortages, it was built at huge expense for tourists who never come and sits largely empty.

This sudden thaw in relations is being greeted with acrossthe-board international hosannas (with the notable exception of the South Korean hockey coach, who has grumped that chances of a medal just went out the window.)

On a geopolitical and thermonuclear level, it is good news.

The world gets to wind the Doomsday Clock back a minute or two.

And it is absolutely correct that any country, no matter how morally bankrupt, be allowed to attend the Olympics.

That's the whole point of the exercise - creating a human bridge, however narrow, between polities who despise each other. That they also give out medals is only the excuse to do it.

But it would be wrong to applaud this as some sort of meaningful breakthrough or, worse, cause for fawning.

The North has engaged in this transparent agitprop exercise before. It sent a joint team with the South to the 1991 table-tennis world championships. At several recent Olympics, the respective teams have marched in behind the socalled "unification" flag, though never competed together.

Holding hands at a sports event has never translated into any sort of political softening. If anything, the North's position has hardened over the past quarter century. It remains in an official state of war with its southern kinsmen.

Critics have plausibly noted that the real reason for this sudden affability is that the North Korean leadership wants to crack global resolve on enforcing sanctions. The North Koreans may also be trying to buy breathing space to further develop their nuclear-weapons program.

In essence, they are in all likelihood using the Olympics to con the world into giving them a temporary pass. If that's the case, it would be a three-card-Monte sort of grift - we all know beforehand the game is rigged, but we play anyway.

Where his father enjoyed making films (occasionally made by kidnapped talent), current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is more of a sports enthusiast (by the look of him, strictly as a spectator).

Like other strongmen, he enjoys the idea of expressing national vigour on a medal table. So in the hopes of making this man-child more pliable, the IOC and South Korea are giving Mr. Kim rare access to one of his favourite toys.

Like every other institution in the country, North Korea's sporting establishment is underpinned by cruelty and peril.

Unlike other dictators, Mr. Kim routinely punishes athletes who do not meet his arbitrary standard. It has been reported that upon coming home, and no matter how hard they've cried at the anthem, the losers face a variety of punishments.

They include internal banishment and, like the unfortunate soccer coach in 2010, a stint of invigorating re-education in a coal mine.

This generalized fear sounds fanciful to Western ears, but I've seen it up close.

At the South African World Cup, I foolishly walked into a hanging coil of razor wire and ended up in the North Korean dressing room for treatment.

Though he was carrying a medical bag containing no medicine - he opened it to show me so that I would not think him a liar - the North Korean team doctor was awfully kind to me.

But what I remember best from that unusual encounter was the look on the face of the one player also in the room - a hard-looking man named Ri Jun-il.

When we first caught sight of each other at the door, Mr. Ri's eyes bulged and he swayed in place. He actually shuddered with dread. For the duration of our short time together, Mr. Ri sat blankly facing a wall like a grown toddler on a timeout. Just being in my vicinity was putting at him at risk of ideological contamination and, one feared, subsequent denunciation.

This is not an argument against the country's inclusion, but a suggestion that the rest of us ought not celebrate it too much. There is a temptation to reduce North Korea to a punchline, as if the hysterical way it carries on in public is synonymous with fun, even good-hearted mockery.

It's the sort of impulse that prompts some people to ironically wear "USSR" jerseys. Or the more insidious variety that encouraged former Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut to gush sycophantically over Vladimir Putin in Sochi.

The North Korean delegation - the people in it - deserve as warm a welcome as anyone else. But the regime pushing them out there as propaganda tools should elicit nothing but cynicism.

All the people at a Games are equal. Not all their leaders are.

Associated Graphic

The head of the North Korean delegation Jon Jong Su attends a meeting at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas.

REUTERS

South Korean chief delegate Chun Hae-sung, right, shakes hands with North Korean chief delegate Jon Jong Su on Wednesday as they exchange joint statements during their talks at the South side of the border truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas.

AFP/GETTY IMAGES


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