The embarrassing flag mix up at last night’s game between North Korea and Colombia in the Olympic women’s football tournament may have captured the media’s attention (so much so that there have surely been more words written about that than the actual game, a shame given that women’s sport is so underreported in the UK), but behind the nationalism lies something altogether more serious.
I wonder if anyone else watching wondered about what the women’s lives were like, and those of their fellow citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which has to be one of the most inappropriately named countries in the world, given there is a single political party that unsurprisingly wins all the seats at general elections. It has a dismal human rights record that has barely improved since Kim Jong-un took over as leader after his father’s death last year, despite hopes to the contrary.
Clearly North Korean athletes are allowed to travel, a right denied to the vast majority of the population. They are well-fed, while the rest of the country faces a severe food crisis – six million need food aid - and deaths from starvation are not uncommon. They have access to medicine and health care, another right denied to many of their compatriots, and access to good facilities to hone their sporting skills.
But, being from a country with severe restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, they will be under huge pressure not to do anything that could be perceived as critical of their country’s leader - recently revealed to be married to Ri Sol-ju, who may or may not be the singer of the same name - and his regime. Sport is used as a propaganda tool, a way to show the country in a good light nationally and internationally, and sports people are expected to do their very best in the name of their country.
If they do or say anything that could be perceived as critical while abroad they, or their families back home, could face punishment – which perhaps gives a little more depth to understanding the flag walkout. After all, most countries would accept it was a genuine mistake and carry on with the game.
Arrests and interrogation for criticism of the North Korean authorities are common. Worse, there were reports last year of the existence of numerous prison camps where arbitrary detention, forced labour, and torture and other ill-treatment were rife. Executions, including public ones, persisted and collective punishment was common.
If the Olympics can help to shine a light on repressive regimes, that’s an achievement to add to all those of the athletes. Given the human rights issues and political volatility in many countries taking part in the event, there may be more incidents like this to come.
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