I remember the feeling of warmth when South and North Korean athletes competed for the first time under a unity flag. It was at the World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, in 1991, and from my position at the back of the tribune, it was possible to see spectators from both nations cheering, clapping and stamping their feet.
The story was, even at the time, remarkable. Just four years earlier, North Korean operatives had masterminded the midair bombing of Korean Air Flight 858, killing all 115 on board. North Korea had boycotted the 1988 Seoul Olympics and threatened that more atrocities would overshadow the Games. They had become ever more hostile, with those south of the border living in fear.
Then, just weeks before the 1991 World Championships, players on both sides were told of a wholly unexpected political development. The two nations were to play as a unified team for the first time since the Korean War, four decades earlier. Table tennis seemed a perfect vehicle for the policy, with North and South each boasting players in the world’s top 10.
Chiba thus became an unlikely symbol of political rapprochement. Those of us looking on felt waves of hope when the combined female team won the title, defeating China in one of the great shocks of the modern era. I remember chatting to Hyun Jung-hwa, the top South Korean player, who had made an unlikely friendship with Ri Pun-hui, her North Korean counterpart.
“I always knew that sport could influence politics,” she said. I couldn’t help agreeing.
Today, however, I look back with embarrassment at my naivete. The 1991 World Table Tennis Championships did not herald a thawing of relations but a chance for a psychopathic regime to gain goodwill, not to mention a check from South Korea, in return for precious little.
Within three years, the regime, with its callous ideological emphasis on collective farming, had caused mass starvation. Some sources estimate that between 1994 and 1998, more than 2 million North Koreans died after the ending of Soviet food subsidies.
And this is why I look at the combined South and North Korean ice-hockey team at the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang not with hope but with skepticism. I see Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, smiling for the cameras and glimpse a woman in fear of sororicide. I see not a reaching-out from the North, but the dynamics of cold political calculation.
And when I look at that contingent of North Korean fans, cheering in unison, smiling from ear to ear, I am not charmed but chilled. I see a group of hostages, every one of whom has been warned that a failure to grin, to applaud, to shout to the rafters, will be met with devastating retribution for their families back home, most likely in the gulags where so many thousands have perished at the hands of the regime.
This is not collective joy; it is the grotesque choreography of totalitarian terror.
Every now and again, sport can act as a catalyst for political reform. Perhaps the most famous example was the ping-pong diplomacy of the early 1970s, when Richard Nixon’s flirtation with Mao Zedong was facilitated by a trip by the US table-tennis team to China after the 1971 World Championships in Japan. Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, traveled to Beijing a little later, setting the stage for Nixon himself. The president called it “the week that changed the world.”
In the case of North Korea, there is little such hope. Kim’s principal objective is to sustain absolute power for as long as possible. He executed Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and mentor, and likely ordered the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, his half-brother, who was sprayed with a nerve agent before boarding a plane in Kuala Lumpur.
In total, 140 military and army officials have been purged. Power corrupts, but in the absence of checks and balances, it also incubates psychopathy.
Even the North Korean athletes at these Games should be pitied. They are given lives of comparative comfort to reduce the probability of defection, a prospect that the regime regards with horror. This is why the secret police infiltrate their lives in the build-up to competition, why they are watched like hawks from the moment they arrive and why they sit apart from other athletes in the village or competition zones.
It is also why they will be met with persecution on their return, even if they have triumphed on behalf of their divine leader. As Kim Joo-il, a former military commander who defected from North Korea in 2005, told me before the London Olympics: “Returning athletes face six months of debriefing and are required to sign nondisclosure agreements which forbid them from discussing their experiences. Failure to comply is not merely punishable for the athlete but also their extended families. They face the threat of being sent to a political prison.”
I will never forget trying to chat to North Korean players at a table-tennis competition in the late 1990s. I hoped to set up a training session for later that day, something that is common in international events, where competitors from different countries practice together. It is a way of learning fresh things, sparring against new styles. The moment I stepped to the court, however, I could see that something was wrong.
The players instantly looked to a member of the secret police masquerading as a coach. In faltering English, he made it clear that they would not interact. I smiled at the players, hoping to convey friendship but couldn’t help noticing the fear in their eyes.
These young men and women had been propagandized since birth, taught that the West is the enemy, and that a sociopathic dynasty, which had impoverished and enslaved them, are divine benefactors. No wonder they looked confused.
I hardly slept that night. With a clarity that haunted me for weeks, I knew that I had come face to face with an approximation of the nightmare imagined in George Orwell’s “1984.” One, of course, hopes that a glorified game of ice hockey will lead to a reduction in tension on the Korean Peninsula and a transition from North Korean absolutism. But, in the absence of a more pointed impetus, internal or external, I seriously doubt it.
Matthew Syed played table tennis for Great Britain in two Olympics, Barcelona 1992 and Sydney 2000. Reprinted from The Times of London.