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How sanction-riddled North Korea manages to produce Olympic-level athletes

Key Points
  • For one of the world's poorest countries, the North has consistently performed well in international sporting competitions.
  • Kim Jong Un's love of games such as soccer and basketball has resulted in significant investment in talent recruitment and infrastructure.
  • But his efforts may be complicated by new sanctions that now include certain sporting goods.

North Korea's sanction-riddled economy has limited the country's presence on the global stage. Except for in sports.

Years of economic punishment for nuclear belligerence haven't stopped the reclusive regime from managing a decent track record at international sporting events.

Chiba, Japan - December 15, 2017: North Korean players pose with the trophy as they celebrate winning the women's East Asian Football Championship
Visual China Group / Getty Images

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the isolated nation clinched two gold medals — better than India's performance — adding to its four gold medal count at 2012's London Games.

Weightlifting, wrestling, boxing, judo and gymnastics are the North's major strengths at competitive tournaments. During the 2014 Asian Games, the pariah state took home an impressive 11 gold medals, four of which were in weightlifting. Ice hockey is another forte, with the men's national team ranking 39th globally, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

As of this writing, no athlete from the country had reached the podium in the 2018 games.

Kim's love of sports

The country's sporting achievements are widely credited to leader Kim Jong Un's investment in a domestic industry. A love for soccer, basketball and skiing has seen the millennial dictator funnel available state resources into talent recruitment and necessary infrastructure.

Cabinet reports reveal increased spending on sports every year while satellite imagery and state media show construction of new facilities as well as renovation of old gymnasiums and skate parks, according to Curtis Melvin, researcher at Johns Hopkins University's U.S.-Korea Institute.

Kim is reportedly a fan of Italian soccer club Inter Milan and famously invited former NBA player Dennis Rodman to Pyongyang in 2013. That same year, Kim opened a luxury ski resort near the port city of Wonsan, a former missile-testing site, in hopes of transforming the area into a visitor hot spot.

Tae Ok Ryom of North Korea warms up during the Figure Skating Pairs Skating Short Program on day five of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
Jean Catuffe | Getty Images

"The emphasis on sports is part of Kim Jong Un's strategy to construct and highlight more of what makes life fun, such as culture and entertainment," explained Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, associate scholar at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. That's in stark contrast to previous administrations, which focused on "urging citizens to tighten their belts," Silberstein continued.

"When something is deemed particularly important and crucial to develop, such as sports, North Korea finds a way of getting what it needs for it," he added.

Experts note that elite talent has always been well fed and funded, even during years of famine in the late 1990s.

Simon Cockerell, general manager at Koryo Tours — a Beijing-based firm that brings foreign tourists to North Korea — said he's witnessed a definite increase in government support for sports.

One of Koryo's most popular tours is centered on the Pyongyang Marathon. Around 1,000 foreigners ran in 2017's edition, by far the highest number, Cockerell said.

Among ordinary North Koreans, popular sports include soccer, basketball and volleyball. The latter is particularly favored since it requires less space and is non-contact so men and women can play together, Cockerell noted.

Tighter sanctions

But Kim's efforts are increasingly being challenged as sanctions evolve to include luxury goods, which includes hockey sticks and ski equipment. The West hopes that amped-up economic pressure on the nation will bring Kim to the negotiating table.

When the North Korean team arrived in Auckland last year for an international ice hockey tournament, they were carrying wooden sticks, so organizers had to loan them equipment, AFP reported.

In October, the regime's National Sports Guidance Committee accused Washington of "stretching its tentacles deep into the area of sports," according to a report by the official Korean Central News Agency.

But experts note that Pyongyang is able to get by since it often doesn't pay to attend international competitions. For example, South Korea is footing the bill for the North's Olympic costs at the Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

Moreover, "training athletes in North Korea is not as expensive is it is in other developing countries," Melvin said.