Jakarta: North Korea’s athletes are not only scooping record numbers of medals at the Asian Games, they are winning hearts with an unprecedented charm offensive and will go home as heroes — rewarded with new cars and houses.
At the weightlifting competition which concluded on Monday with an eighth gold — smashing North Korea’s previous best of four in 2014 — the team’s attitude has been the polar opposite from Incheon four years ago.
There, every medallist trotted out a well-worn script of thanking leader Kim Jong Un for his inspiration to reporters before being whisked away.
But over eight days at the Jakarta International Expo their athletes have gone off-piste to talk frankly about their nerves, fears, emotions and life back home while mingling freely with spectators and reporters.
They even were joined by the South Korean weightlifting team to celebrate the end of the competition with an unprecedented joint team photo.
“I think we have shown the world that the people of Korea are the greatest as one,” +75kg winner Kim Kuk Hyang told AFP after posing with her South Korean counterparts, an astonishing statement from a North Korean given that the two countries have technically remained at war for the past 65 years.
Then she was off to grab tiny 4ft 7in (140cm) Ri Song Gum, the 48kg class gold medallist, and carry her aloft around the stage with the pair laughing, joking and punching the air.
Selfies and smiles
Hardly a single request for a selfie by a fan or Games volunteer has been turned down — most have been accommodated with huge smiles. At the 2014 Asian Games none was entertained.
The shackles are off, athletes are revelling and happy to reveal their personal stories for the first time.
Om Yun Chol even thanked South Koreans for helping him to win 56kg men’s gold.
“The passionate support from the South Korean cheerleading squad is my source of great strength,” he said while posing for pictures.
Was this really the same man who four years earlier had thanked leader Kim for teaching him how to “crack a rock with an egg”?
O Kang Chol cried buckets for his dead mother after his maiden gold medal in the men’s 69kg.
It was a touching moment as he mourned his mum who passed away earlier this year and whose ambition had been to see him win a first title.
“I will visit mother’s grave and give her this gold medal,” he told reporters, still weeping and unabashed at baring his grief — a huge contrast to the robotic strongmen and women paraded at previous championships.
It is an eye-opening change, which appears to have gone hand-in-hand with the thawing of global diplomatic relations culminating in the historic summit between Kim and US President Donald Trump in Singapore in June.
South Korean observers have been taken aback. “We have never see the North Koreans like this,” Yonhap news agency reporter Joo Kyung-don told AFP.
The new open attitude appears to have been encouraged right from the top.
North Korean Sports Minister Kim Il Guk, one of Kim Jong Un’s right-hand men, was in attendance Sunday and giving his blessing to team officials spilling the beans on previously taboo topics.
‘They are not scary’
“The weightlifting champions who raise the country’s honour will be rewarded with a new house and a new car,” head coach Kim Kwang Dok told AFP, for the first time confirming something that had long been suspected in the secretive nation — that sporting glory is a way out of grinding poverty.
“Our athletes will get national hero status once they return and will get big attention from our people. Everyone will be proud.”
It is not just at the weightlifting arena that heads have been turning and relationships opening up.
The two Koreas marched together at the opening ceremony, fielded a joint team in women’s basketball and so far have won a historic gold and two bronzes in dragon boating.
“They are not scary or anything like portrayed on the internet,” South Korea basketball player Kim Han-byul said. “It’s been the normal girl talk with them.”
Weightlifting sisters Rim Un Sim and Rim Jong Sim tenderly cried tears of joy at each other’s success as they pulled off a golden double and said they couldn’t wait to get home to show off their medals to their family.
Rim Jong Sim was one who did remember, albeit briefly, to thank Kim Jong Un. “This gold medal isn’t for me, but it’s for my country and our supreme leader,” she said.
But such expressions were few and far between and her sister had soon changed the subject.
“I can’t describe how happy I am,” Rim Un Sim said. “We competed together and won medals at the university championship last year, but this is the Asian Games.”