What if not winning a gold medal in the Olympics meant being cast out of society and forced into a labor camp when you returned home from London?
Such is the fate awaiting some North Korean athletes who fail to bring home medals. Adding insult to injury, the athletes are actually forced into training at a young age by the Communist Party’s Sports Committee.
While North Koreans are dedicating their wins to their “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un, the fear of failure terrifyingly fuels the drive to win.
Medal winners will return home to prize money, cars, and other lavish gifts as the government demonstrates its appreciation for illuminating North Korea positively on the world stage. Gold medalist Kim Un-Guk, who set an Olympic record in 62-kilogram weightlifting this year, said he “won first place because the shining Supreme Commander Kim Jong Un gave me power and courage,” according to ABC News.
Weightlifter Om Yun-cho told the International Herald Tribune, “The reason that I’m able to get the gold medal at these Olympics is due to the warm love and consideration of General Kim Jong-il and comrade Kim Jong-un.… Because of them, I was able to get great strength today.”
The impoverished nation of over 25 million people has been known to convey false loyalty to their country’s leaders for a legitimate fear of punishment if they do not. What some called “mandatory public crying” when Kim Jong-il passed away last year is just one example. The people’s allegiance then smoothly transferred to Jong-un with no relief for the oppressed.
According to The Wall Street Journal, North Koreans are actually being “gifted” with an unprecedented five full hours per day of Olympic coverage from London. Of course, that’s only for those with televisions. Since many barely have enough to eat every day, it’s likely the Olympic coverage matters little to most North Koreans.
Earlier this year, an escapee of a North Korean labor camp visited The Heritage Foundation and described the conditions of the camp he grew up in for 23 years of his life—a camp like the Olympic losers may be sent to. Heritage’s Mike Brownfield describes:
The biggest of them is reportedly 31 miles long and 25 miles wide—bigger than Los Angeles—and electrified barbed-wire fences surround the perimeter. To date, the camps have lasted twice as long as the Soviet Gulag and 12 times longer than Nazi concentration camps. Yet little is known of them in the outside world.
The scene is far scarier than just a feeling of grave disappointment in not medaling.
“Any success [by North Korean athletes at the Olympics] will be used extensively for propaganda purposes,” said Grigore Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
For the 56 athletes on North Korea’s Olympic team, life as they know it hangs in the balance. With just a few more days of the summer games left, one can’t help but hope—for their sake—that they win.