Seeing Bounty Abroad, Will North Koreans Change Their Homeland?
Posted February 16, 2018 11:07 a.m. EST
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — When North Korean figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik took to the ice this week, cheerleaders chanting their names stowed the unified Korean flags they had waved at other events here at the Pyeongchang Olympics and whipped out their national flag.
After that unmistakable outburst of patriotic fervor, it was all the more incongruous when the pair began skating to a distinctly Western song: “Day in the Life” by the Beatles, in a cover by Jeff Beck.
“I have no clue how they chose it,” said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent French Canadian coach. He worked with the pair, who placed 13th, for eight weeks last summer in Montreal and said their North Korean coach had selected the song. “I think the fact that everybody was like, ‘Huh?’ makes it even more special.”
The musical choice seemed to belie the assumption that North Koreans, citizens of the most isolated country on earth, are cut off from knowledge of the outside world by the restrictions imposed by their autocratic leader, Kim Jong Un.
With 22 athletes and an entourage of around 500 cheerleaders, arts performers, journalists and security minders here at the Winter Games, the North Koreans have been subjected to endless scrutiny about what they are seeing here, and whether it is, well, blowing their minds.
More broadly, analysts and officials wonder if engaging with the outside world could have a political effect back home.
Those scuffling for information find only scraps. The North Korean figure skaters seemed to enjoy a variety of global food in the athletes’ cafeteria, said Kam Alex Kang Chan, a South Korean skater who also trained with Marcotte.
Megan Duhamel, who with her skating partner, Eric Radford, won a bronze medal in pairs figure skating and is married to Marcotte, said that the North Korean skaters became fans of protein bars made by a friend of hers in Montreal, and that she gave them several to take home.
In the locker room before a game between the unified Korean women’s ice hockey team and Sweden, some of the South Koreans taught their teammates from the North how to dance to K-pop music, said Sarah Murray, the Korean women’s hockey coach.
The subtext of some of the curiosity is whether the North Koreans, exposed to glimpses of popular culture or the higher standard of living in the South, might be tempted to defect, as athletes from other communist countries have done at previous Olympic Games. No North Korean athletes have defected in an Olympics, although one did in 1991 during a world judo championship in Spain.
Some analysts theorize that exposure to the outside world could eventually drive change back home.
“It might be better to think that an information inflow will slowly alter the preferences of North Koreans by inevitably poking holes in the ideology,” said Robert E. Kelly, a professor of political science at Pusan National University in South Korea. “Over time, this should change the regime and make it easier to deal. That’s the hope anyway.”
Some U.S. officials espouse a version of this view. “Our sense is the more North Koreans that come here and can see how successful the South has been, the better,” Marc Knapper, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said during a news conference before the games began.
“Maybe they’ll discover what good things accrue when they decide to rejoin the international community and make the right decisions,” Knapper added.
Yet even North Korea watchers who support greater athletic and cultural exchanges say none of it will slow down the country’s nuclear ambitions.
“Of course they will proceed with their nuclear program,” said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Nothing can be done, short of a military invasion, to reverse it. The best we can hope for is to achieve some kind of freeze.” (Lankov does not support military action though.)
Any North Korean who might try to steer the regime in a new direction risks severe punishment. Dissidents are thrown into prison camps, and Kim Jong Un has had hundreds of people killed, including his own uncle, and, it is widely believed, his half brother. Critics say countries hosting North Koreans become susceptible to propaganda designed to soften the North’s image. They point to the regime’s charm offensive at the Olympics, including a visit by Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister.
“While North Korea, the target of engagement, remains a menacing nuclear state, the outsiders have become beholden to the enchanting possibility of their efforts bearing fruit one day,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
Those who promote more engagement with the North say change will be evolutionary, not revolutionary. “North Koreans, including North Korean officials, will see they are lagging very behind the world,” Lankov said. “Some of them will say, ‘Let’s overthrow the government,’ but many more will say, ‘Let’s change our policy a bit.'”
It is not even clear how much the North’s athletes and supporters have seen or heard while at the games. The dozen female players on the joint ice hockey team sleep in separate dorms and ride a separate bus from their South Korean teammates.
The North Korean cheerleaders and journalists are staying in a remote resort in Inje County, at least a 90-minute drive from many of the Olympic venues.
The cheerleaders are not even allowed to slip to the bathroom on their own, and minders from the North Korean delegation, as well as South Korean police officers, are constantly monitoring them, the athletes and performers.
“Leaving North Korea is even harder than leaving the mafia,” said Sue Mi Terry, Korea chairwoman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Would-be defectors “know their entire family, extended relatives, friends will get executed or rounded up and sent to labor camps,” she said. What’s more, she said, the athletes and cheerleaders at the Olympics are “carefully hand-picked and vetted North Koreans, children of the elite ruling class” who have decent living standards. “Why risk bringing serious harm to your loved ones when you are living a pretty good life?” Terry said.
Analysts say it is also presumptuous to assume any North Korean who goes abroad would immediately want to move.
“If you use the analogy of someone coming from the Midwest or a small town and you go to New York for a weekend, and there’s all of a sudden all of this stuff — a lot of people that I know from quieter cities tend to get very overwhelmed,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
Defectors say those who have been abroad are likely to receive some kind of ideological “re-education” session upon returning home.
Still, some experts say exposure to the outside world may ultimately undermine the regime’s efforts to keep citizens in line.
Ideological education “can’t take away people’s thoughts after they experience what it’s like in a democratic society,” said Kang Dong-wan, professor of North Korean culture and politics at Dong-A University in Busan, South Korea. “Wouldn’t the cheerleaders and the athletes wonder why they are being controlled while other South Koreans in the crowd sitting right next to them are cheering naturally and moving about freely?” The North’s athletes at the Olympics have said little in public, but have generally conveyed their loyalty to their nation. Duhamel, who drove the North Korean skating pair to daily practice in Montreal last summer, said they told her Canada was “like our country, very nice, very peaceful.”
And at a news conference after an ice hockey match, Jong Su Hyon, a North Korean player, said, “Nothing made me uncomfortable, and nothing really surprised me here.”
Some spectators riveted by the North’s synchronized cheerleaders acknowledged it was likely some actually wanted to go back.
“Many South Koreans worked abroad after the Korean War, when things were tough for South Korea,” said Kim Myo-jong, 34, an orthopedic surgeon in the stands for the pairs skating short program. “But instead of staying abroad because it was easier to make money there, they decided to return to help South Korea’s development. Maybe the North Korean elites who have outside exposure might feel the same.”