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As athletes struggle, Kim Jong Un dreams of Olympic glory

February 19, 2018

Kim Ryon-Hyang, of North Korea, skis during the first run of the women's slalom at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Kim Jong Un wants to turn his country into an international sports power — think East Germany in the 1970s and 80s. The North Korean leader is pouring resources into training and infrastructure, athletes are getting more recognition than ever and the country now even has an all-sports television channel, though it’s not clear how many citizens are able to actually watch it.

But while Kim’s decision to send a team to Pyeongchang made a political splash, North Korea’s athletes have battled for dead last in most of their competitions. It appears Kim’s country has a lot of work to do.

Though Kim hasn’t gone out and cited it by name, the East German example is an enticing precedent for a status-hungry country like North Korea.

While smaller in population — 16 million in 1990 for East Germany, 25 million for today’s North Korea — East Germany was second only to the Soviet Union in the medal count at three summer games. It was the top medal winner at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games and runner-up in four others.

North Korea, meanwhile, has participated in nine Winter Olympics, starting at Innsbruck in 1964. It has won only two medals: a silver and a bronze, in speedskating and short-track speedskating.

But in a major policy statement in 2015, Kim vowed to improve that record.

Published with the typically unwieldy title of “Let Us Usher in a New Golden Age of Building a Sports Power in the Revolutionary Spirit of Paektu,” the statement called on the ruling party to help athletes win at the Olympics, world championships and other international contests.

“Only sportspeople can cause the flag of our republic to be hoisted in the sky of other countries in peace time,” it said.

North Korea didn’t even have a roster for Pyeongchang until last month. Only two of the 22 athletes that ended up coming to the Olympics had qualified in pre-Games’ competitions. It entered seven men and 15 women, all but three of the women were in ice hockey on a combined North-South team, which gave up 22 goals and scored just once in its first four games.

The rest of the athletes were in alpine and cross country skiing, short-track speedskating and figure skating.

They still might have a chance to medal. Short track speed skating has another race to go on Tuesday, the men’s 500-meters, and 16-year-old Jong Kwang Bom is entered to compete.

With few athletes prepared and ready when Kim Jong Un announced on New Year’s Day that he wanted to send a delegation, the North instead dispatched more than 140 musicians, a demonstration taekwondo team, a 229-woman strong cheering squad and 21 journalists, though the Olympics have gotten virtually no coverage back home in the North.

As expected, the cheering squad turned out to be major clickbait. Kim also grabbed front-page headlines by sending his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, on an unprecedented trip across the Demilitarized Zone for a member of the Kim family. She attended the opening ceremony and presented South Korean President Moon Jae-in with an invitation to visit Pyongyang.

In actual competition, the North’s best performance has come from figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Kik, who finished 13th with their best pair skate ever. They were the only North Koreans to have actually qualified for the Olympics, though the North missed a registration deadline and the two had been replaced until politics intervened on their behalf.

Ryom and Kim were never a medal threat and outperformed only three other pairs. But they were absolutely stellar compared to the rest of the North’s athletes:

— Speedskater Choe Un Song took a hard fall in practice and finished last in his 1,500-meter short track heat.

— Alpine skier Kim Ryon Hyang was 54th out of 54 finishers in the women’s slalom and 67th out of 67 finishers in the giant slalom.

— Ri Yong Gum finished 89th out of 90 in women’s 10-kilometer free cross-country race.

— In men’s cross country, Han Chun Gyong was 101st and teammate Pak Il Chol 107th in the 15 kilometer free. There were 116 men in that race.

— Choe Myong Gwang and Kang Song Il were the final North Korean skiers to compete. They raced in Sunday’s giant slalom and came in 74th and 75th out of 75 finishers.

Even so, the North has made noteworthy strides in sports since Kim Jong Un assumed power in late 2011. It holds three weightlifting world records and has a top-notch judo team, and its women are a world-class football power.

One of Kim’s first big projects was the construction of Masik Pass, the country’s first luxury ski resort, where its elite skiers now train. The North has renovated its stadiums, built or improved skating parks around the country and Pyongyang now has its first international football school to train young players. The most talented have the opportunity to travel abroad to further hone their skills.

Daniel Pinkston, a North Korea expert and lecturer at Troy University in Seoul, says Kim Jong Un sees sports as a means of bolstering the North’s international status and providing the public with something to feel proud of.

But he notes that achieving the phenomenal success of an East Germany is probably beyond North Korea’s capabilities.

“It’s one piece of many in the effort to modernize North Korea and promote ‘national glory’ domestically and internationally. The DDR is the gold standard, but that was a different era, and everything can’t be replicated,” he says, using the abbreviation for East Germany’s formal name.

One thing the North almost certainly won’t be able to replicate is East Germany’s use of doping, though there are indications it might be flirting with the idea.

In some of its most prominent cases, London gold medalist and world record-holding weightlifter Kim Un Guk tested positive after the World Championships in 2015; double medal winning shooter Kim Jong Su was expelled from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 for taking a banned beta-blocker; and North Korea was banned from competing entirely in the 2015 women’s World Cup after five members of its team at the 2011 World Cup tested positive for steroids.

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Eric Talmadge, the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief, is on assignment at the Pyeongchang Olympics. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @erictalmadge.

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