(Left: North Korean Olympian Jong Sim Rim. Right: North Korean refugees in shelter watching the Olympics.)
For two weeks, people on every continent have been glued to their screens, rooting for their country’s finest men and women as they run, swim, jump, throw things, fly through the air and generally do things that would probably end in a hospital visit for the rest of us if we tried the same thing. North Korean athletes (competing under the country’s official name, the DPRK) have enjoyed a lot of success, winning four golds so far, equalling their previous best performance at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. A source of pride in any country, surely.
But what about the people who have fled North Korea due to hunger and oppression, and cannot return?
How do North Korean refugees view the Olympics?
To get some insight into this, our staff did a completely unscientific poll of North Korean refugees. Some of them were in our shelter in Southeast Asia, and some of them were already resettled in South Korea.
The top-line answer from those conversations is that North Korean refugees do cheer for their fellow North Koreans at the Olympics or other international sporting events, and they feel proud if they do well. Just like the rest of us. While watching a clip of the opening ceremony, the refugees in our shelter showed pride and marvelled at how many North Korean athletes had made it to the Olympics (56), given their country’s relatively small population.
Talking with North Korean refugee friends in Seoul, it seems that northerners still feel pride in ‘their people’ doing well at the Olympics, even if they have lived in South Korea for several years. They see North Korean athletes’ participation as completely separate from the regime (after all, it’s not as if Kim Jong-un is competing himself…). It seems the feeling of pride in seeing people from your own hometown or country excelling on the world stage is truly universal, and cuts through political boundaries. Once again, it’s about the people, not the politics.
A few refugees also told us they felt sorry for the North Korean athletes, because some of them looked like they had suffered from periods of malnutrition when compared to their much taller competitors. Sadly, North Korean refugees tend to have an eye for these kinds of things. Some also pitied the athletes because after the Olympics they would have to go back to live in North Korea, where even if they were taking back a gold medal, the government would not be able to provide them with much of a standard of living compared to other countries.
How about North Korean refugees’ views of South Korean athletes & their Olympic successes?
This question is a little bit more difficult, and it plays into the much bigger issue of North Korean refugee/defector identity issues, which I can’t begin to do justice in this blog post. However, in general, North Korean refugees living in Seoul do cheer for South Korean athletes, and they do so more the longer they have lived in South Korea. But it seems that never quite reaches the level at which they would cheer for the North Korean athletes. And when there is a North-South match-up, well, that raises all sorts of interesting questions…
As for the North Korean refugees in our shelter, who had never been to South Korea, they were mostly interested to watch videos of North Korean athletes. They didn’t seem to root for the South Korean athletes, although they did take notice when they did well. This may be partly because North Koreans have historically been denied opportunities to cheer for (or even know of) South Korean athletes, with the regime censoring sporting events and even blocking news of South Korean sporting accomplishments.
So there you have it. It seems that North Korean refugees forget political issues when they watch the Olympics, and root for their countrymen and women just like everybody else. Which is the way it should be, right?!
SOKEEL J. PARK | Research & Strategy Analyst