Imagine if you were in Rio representing one of the most notoriously authoritarian regimes in the world. Would you be proud to show the wider world that your home country isn’t as bad as it’s portrayed? Or would your interaction with other nationalities and experience in another country prompt you to reevaluate your home? Might you even try to defect?
Bear these considerations in mind when considering the 31 North Korean athletes and their supporting team members in Rio for the 2016 Summer Games.
During the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, sports reporter John Canzano tried to find out what the North Korean athletes had been doing outside of their events. He was dismayed by the response. “We’re not allowed to see places of interest,” Wang Ok Gyong, a North Korean swimmer, told him through an interpreter. “No mixing with others.”
Tight control on North Korean athletes may be an attempt to block defections. Foreign sporting events have long seen athletes from authoritarian countries run away or claim asylum–at least 45 members of the Eritrean soccer team have defected during various foreign trips over recent years. During the 2012 London Olympic Games, a variety of athletes disappeared and were later found to have defected. (There have been no known defectors from North Korea during any Olympics in which the country has competed. It’s possible this lack of defections is due to the tight control exerted by North Korean security forces and potential punishments for families left behind.)
From watching the games, North Korean athletes appear to have a real desire to make their country proud. And besides, those who win gold medals may receive considerable rewards from the state. “Successful athletes have done very well in recent years, receiving better housing in Pyongyang and other gifts from the government for their efforts,” Christopher Green, a North Korea analyst based in Seoul, says. “Sports have always been important to the government, but the resources have not always been there to develop talent; now there is more money going into sports facilities for elite athlete development, which is a reward of a sort, too.”