World News

Most North Koreans Can’t Actually Watch the Olympic Games

Posted February 15, 2018 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2018 6:22 p.m. EST

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea has 22 athletes competing in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, a South Korean town only 50 miles from its border. Can its people watch them and other Olympic Games on television?

Technically, yes, because North Korea has free access to Olympic broadcasts.

But its isolated people are unlikely to watch any broadcasts from Pyeongchang, said officials and North Korean defectors in the South. As of Friday, North Korea’s state-run television had broadcast none of the games — a stark contrast to its glorifying coverage of Kim Yo Jong, who visited the South last weekend as a special envoy of her brother, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. North Korean athletes were granted special permission to compete in the games, although few had qualified.

“For the North Korean regime, there is no big incentive in reminding its people that the South lives well enough to host an Olympics,” said Lee Min-bok, a defector from North Korea. “Unless one of its athletes wins a surprise medal, it’s not likely to broadcast any competition to its people.”

South Korean TV stations historically buy the Olympic and FIFA World Cup broadcasting rights for the entire Korean Peninsula as a matter of principle — even though they do not broadcast to the North because South Korea’s constitution defines the whole peninsula as its territory. For the Olympic Games, they relinquish broadcasting rights for the North to the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, a coalition of broadcasters, which in turn feeds Olympic broadcasts free of charge.

In the energy-starved North, TV broadcasting is limited to a few hours of propaganda-filled programs a day, and among its rural people, TV sets remain a rarity. Still, there is an appetite for sports broadcasting. Without telling its people how it could get the feed, North Korea has been broadcasting Olympic highlights and FIFA World Cup soccer matches in recent decades — usually with a delay of a day or two.

In 2002, when the two Koreas were in a reconciliatory mood, North Korea even broadcast the World Cup matches in the South. In 2014, it broadcast daily highlights from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, although none of its athletes competed there. That makes the absence of Olympic broadcasting in the North all the more conspicuous this year.

“The last thing the North Korean authorities want is for its people to envy the South,” said Jung Gwang-il, a North Korean defector. Like its former socialist allies, North Korea has recognized the role of sports in reasserting what it calls the country’s ideological superiority. When its athletes returned home with golds, it honored them with car parades and rewards, like new apartments. The most celebrated example was Jong Song Ok, who won the World Championships marathon in Spain in 1999.

Jong famously said she won because while running, she imagined Kim Jong Il, then North Korea’s leader, “beckoning me from the finish line.”

Kim, the father of the current leader, made her a “hero of the republic,” the highest honor in the country, for lifting the morale of his people still in the grip of a devastating famine. (Defectors from the North later relayed a different story: Jong, sent to Spain as a pacemaker for another North Korean runner, ran for the life of her father, who was in prison.)

This year, Kim Jong Un has no athlete who can glorify him as Jong did his father.

North Korea has won only two medals in the Winter Olympics, a silver in speedskating in 1964 and a bronze in short-track speedskating in 1992. The International Olympic Committee granted the 22 North Koreans at the current games last-minute exemptions to compete in five sports in Pyeongchang, including a dozen who joined the South Korean women’s ice hockey squad to create the first inter-Korean Olympic team ever. None is expected to stand on a medal podium.

But Kim had quite a different goal for the Olympics, analysts said.

When he used his New Year’s Day speech to propose sending North Korean athletes to the Olympics, it was clear that his interest was not in Olympic golds but in creating a political détente so he could weaken international sanctions imposed on his country. At home, he described his decision as an act of magnanimity.

South Koreans “are so grateful to us for giving a helping hand to their Winter Games, which were at the risk of becoming the least popular Olympics in history because of the political situation,” the North’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said last month.

South Korea has repeatedly urged North Korea to join the Olympics, hoping that its participation would help ease tensions and help make the games a success. That created an opening for Kim to engage in what critics called a “charm offensive.”

Kim sent hundreds of cheerleaders, musicians and singers to the games to supplement his meager sports contingent. They stole much of the show on the sidelines of the games. He also sent the most unusual Olympic guest: his sister, whose visit to the South, including meetings with President Moon Jae-in, created a media frenzy. Kim Yo Jong delivered her brother’s invitation for Moon to visit the North for a summit meeting, raising hopes for a détente, as Kim Jong Un intended.

“Kim Jong Un didn’t really have anyone to send to the Olympics, except for his cheerleaders and singers,” said Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector who works as a reporter for the mass-circulation South Korean daily Dong-A Ilbo. “They were the best card he had.”

The state-run North Korean news outlets covering the Olympics focused on these nonsports activities to highlight Kim’s inter-Korean initiative.

They carried front-page reports on his sister’s visit. They told North Koreans that their arts troupe performed to “packed audiences” in the South. They also reported the North Korean cheerleaders rooting for the joint Korean ice hockey team but did not mention that it lost 8-0 to Switzerland and Sweden. The team also lost 4-1 to Japan, the Koreans’ historical enemy, on Wednesday.

“Kim Jong Un did not look for Olympic golds in the first place,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “His aim was to use the Olympics to create a mood for dialogue in order to head off sanctions and pressure and to soften his country’s negative image. And he has been more successful there than he hoped for.”