North Korean athletes thank South Korean fans for support at Asian Games

Posted on : 2018-08-27 16:15 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Remarks indicate major shift in attitude toward inter-Korean relations
North Korean weightlifter Ri Som-geum poses for a commemorative photographs with the South Korean joint cheering squad after winning a gold medal in the 48-kg event in Jakarta on Aug. 20. (Yonhap News)
North Korean weightlifter Ri Som-geum poses for a commemorative photographs with the South Korean joint cheering squad after winning a gold medal in the 48-kg event in Jakarta on Aug. 20. (Yonhap News)

Om Yun-chol, the 27-year old North Korean athlete who won the gold medal in the men’s 56-kg weightlifting competition at the Asian Games on Aug. 20, shocked South Korean reporters with his remarks after the victory.

“The passionate support from the South Korean cheering leading squad was a greater source of strength,” he said at the time.

He even laughed when South Korean reporters told him that his gold was North Korea’s hundredth in the history of the summer Asian Games. “Really? I didn’t know,” he grinned.

It was hard to believe this was the same Om who, after winning gold at the Asian Games in Incheon four years earlier, declared, “If you put the ideas of Chairman Kim Jong-un inside an egg, you could break a rock with it.”

The North Korean athletes competing at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang showed a clear change in demeanor from the past. It was a big contrast from their past stiffness and interviews given over to praising their regime. Before, athletes in the “mixed zone” for joint press coverage would typically shrug off reporters’ requests for “a word”; this time, they were outspoken about sharing their feelings.

O Kang-chol, the 25-year-old athlete who won in the men’s 69-kg weightlifting event, even wept in front of the South Korean press as he recalled his late mother, who passed away in May.

“Now that the competition is over, I’m going to go see my mother to give her my gold and pay my respects,” a tearful O said.

After winning the gold in the women’s 53-kg women’s freestyle wrestling event, Pak Yong-mi was asked, “Do you know that you’re famous in South Korea?”

“Really?” the 27-year-old shyly replied.

When asked if she had “anything to share with the people of South Korea,” she answered, “I’d like to tell them that if you keep trying hard to the end, the results will come.”

The North Korean athletes also readily agreed to autograph and photograph requests from the South Korean joint cheering squad members – something that would have been unimaginable four years earlier. After her medal ceremony finished, 21-year-old women’s 48-kg wrestling gold medalist Ri Song-gum cheerfully agreed to provide autographs for visiting cheering squad members and pose for group photographs with them. She also smiled brightly when told by supporters that she was “pretty.”

North Korea’s performance was also different from the past. With the games half-over as of Aug. 26, its athletes had already claimed 10 gold medals. It could be on its way to a historically high total 36 years after finishing fourth overall at the New Delhi event in 1982 with 17 gold medals.

First participating in the Asian Games at the Teheran event in 1974, North Korea clearly saw the events through the 1980s as a way of establishing their regime’s dominance in the “sports war” with the South. In 1994, it sat out the event in Hiroshima on the bizarre grounds that Japan was “insisting on entry visas for its own squad”; since the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, it finished with 10 or fewer gold medals for five straight events.

Sports commentator Gi Young-no said North Korea “benefited from China’s absence due to doping penalties from the weightlifting events, where it won six of its ten gold medals.”

At the same time, he said the changes in the North Korean athletes’ performance and demeanor “appear to bear some connections to active inter-Korean exchange since the inter-Korean summits, including frequent participation in international competitions.”

By Kim Dong-hoon, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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