North Korea and the Olympics
January 10, 2018
Given the agreement this week for North Korean participation in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics next month, there will be efforts to display some form of inter-Korean unity in addition to the participation of North Korean athletes and Olympic Organizing Committee officials in the Games.
- Two Koreas marching together? The most common form has been a united delegation. This is not a commitment to a joint team, but entering the stadium of the opening and closing ceremonies under a single flag (White flag with UN-blue Korean peninsula). The two Koreas have marched together three times in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games: 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics; 2004 Athens Summer Olympics; 2006 Turin Winter Olympics.
- Joint Inter-Korean team? The two Koreas have never fielded a joint team at the Olympics. In the past, negotiations have bogged down over disagreement on a core concept – merit versus quota. The South has insisted on fielding the best, world-class athletes on an inter-Korean team. The North has insisted on a strict quota system. The most well-known case of a joint inter-Korean team was in 1991 at the 41st World Table Tennis Championship in Chiba, Japan, where they won the women’s team event.
- North Korean success in Olympics participation? North Korea’s first Olympics was the 1964 Innsbruck Winter Olympics in Austria, where it sent seven athletes to compete in six events. Speed skater Han Pil-hwa won North Korea’s first Olympic medal when she took home a silver medal at the 3000 meter speed skating event. North Korea’s first Summer Olympics was the 1972 Munich Summer Olympics in West Germany, where it sent 18 athletes to compete in eight events. North Korea won its first ever gold medal in Munich, when Ri Ho-jun won the 50 meter rifle prone event. North Korea won a total of 5 medals in the games, taking home one gold, one silver, and three bronze. North Korea’s most decorated Olympians are wrestler Kim Il (2 gold, 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta), weightlifter Rim Jong-sim (2 gold, 2012 London and 2016 Rio) and judoka Kye Sun-hui (3 medals, one gold, one silver, and one bronze).
- Medals count? In total, North Korea has won 56 medals at the Summer/Winter Olympics, 16 gold, 16 silver, and 24 bronze. It has won only two medals in the Winter Olympics, a silver and a bronze. Its best medal performance in a single Olympics was when it won 9 medals (4 gold and 5 bronze) at the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics.
- Boycotting the Games? North Korea has boycotted the Olympic Games twice, first when it joined the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and when it later boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics and prosecuted terrorist acts in the latter case in advance of the Games.
- Diplomatic breakthrough? While this inter-Korean dialogue should be welcomed, it is unclear whether Olympics participation will lead to a breakthrough in the nuclear crisis. The North has said that denuclearization is not part of the North-South discussion. Sanctions relief is also unlikely as North Korean sanctions focus on their WMD proliferation and not their non-participation in the Olympics.