John Bagratuni -
North Korean athletes have been far less successful at the Olympics than their neighbours from the South, and their possible participation at next month’s Pyeongchang Winter Games is being seen more as a political gesture than a bid for silverware.
The communist country has only ever picked up one silver and one bronze from its on-and-off participation on the snow and ice: from speed skater Han Pil Hwa at its debut in 1964 and from short track speed skater Hwang Ok Sil in 1992 in Albertville.
North Korea has competed at the Summer Games since 1972 — although it boycotted Los Angeles 1984 and Seoul 1988 — and has been far more successful than at the winter version, grabbing 54 medals, 16 gold.
While North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in his 2018 New Year’s speech that his country was ready for talks on participating in Pyeongchang, he did not go into further details.
While North Korea could send only officials across the border, the main hope of the South — and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) — will be the presence of athletes as well.
The figure skating pair of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik are the only athletes to have qualified under sports federation criteria, by placing 15th at the 2017 world championships.
They missed the original deadline to register but could still be allowed to compete. Any other athletes may also still get in.
“We have kept the door open by extending the deadline for registration, and by offering support to North Korean athletes in the qualification process, whilst always respecting United Nations sanctions,” an IOC spokesperson said.
North Korea boycotted the Seoul Olympics 30 years ago after failing to become co-host with its capital, Pyongyang.
The North also boycotted the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, but it then attended the next two editions in South Korea — in Busan 2002 and Incheon 2014.
Kim has made sports a priority since he came to power in 2011.
So far, success has been rather limited, but North Korea has in the past had the occasional moment of glory.
Most famous is its 1-0 victory over Italy at the 1966 football World Cup in England before going out in the quarter-finals, leading Eusebio’s Portugal 3-0 early on before falling 5-3.
The women’s team has played at four World Cups and claimed three trophies each at the Asian Cup and the Asian Games. — dpa