This has been a question that has been plaguing many of us, if there was a perfect opportunity to escape North Korea’s dictatorship it would be at the Olympics, where you can’t get shot while trying to get away which would cause a diplomatic emergency.
However, we can’t put it past the North Koreans to do something radical, the last time the Olympics were hosted in in South Korea, in 1988, North Korea bombed a Korean Air plane in protest of not being able to co-host the games. Now in 2018 North Korea’s 280 person contingent is the largest group of people to cross the demilitarised zone in decades.
The country’s envoy to the game, like most things in North Korea, is a baffling mixture made up of government officials, cheerleaders, dancers, the Samjiyn Orchestra, Taekwondo performers, reporters, and security personnel. Although, the eyes of the world will be on the atheletes and the question is will anyone speak up? Will we get another Rio selfie? What sort of political mess will be left in the wake of a defection?
Many see the North Korean parade as a way for Kim Jong -un to detract attention from the human right abuses and the current turbulent nuclear situation with the US. Mike Pence who will be at the game, spoke in Japan en-route to the game saying he wants to “continue to isolate North Korea until it abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs once and for all.”
All this is to say, don’t miss the opening ceremony, Pence, Kim Yo Jong the young sister of Kim will be sitting in earshot of each other including other high-ranking North Korean officials.
But we’ve gotten distracted, back to the athletes, North Korea are sending: 12 women’s hockey players, three cross-country skiers, three Alpine skiers, and two short-track speedskaters. You would foolish to bet on any North Korean athlete to win in their sports as only two of them-figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik– qualified solely on merit The others received exemption from the International Olympic Committee, at these game we will not see the same strong showing as Rio. North Korea finished with podium finishes, bagging seven medals for their efforts.
“[The athletes] likely have very good songbun,” said Benjamin Young, a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University who has written about the North Korean athletics. Songbun is a hereditary loyalty caste system which is used to pick athletes.
The head of the Association of North Korean Defectors in South Korea told reporters that one in every 10 members of the delegation is there for security reasons. “A considerable number of supporters including medical staff, cheer squad members, reporters, and other staff will actually be State Security agents,” he said.
“It has always been that way,” Lee Ji Young, a defector and former national athlete for North Korea, told the South Korea-based outlet Daily NK. He added, “Ideological training is mandatory before going abroad for competitions. During this stage, they weed out any individuals with ideological deficiencies or who they suspect may cause a problem abroad.”
When all is said and done, neither North Korea or the South want a defection at the games especially as this is meant to be a two-week “Unity!” campaign. Lets forget that there are over 31,000 defectors in South Korea for a moment. Very few elite athletes make up this number, “They live relatively comfortable lifestyles in Pyongyang and are well taken care of by the state… From a materialist standpoint, these athletes also have little reason to defect,” said Young.
The athlete who have defected have not done so at major events, a Judo athlete, defected while at a competition in Spain in 1991, and a former North Korean women’s ice hockey player defected through China in 1997. This has never happened at the Olympics and since they are being held in South Korea this would be the worst place to try and defect.
“It could cause a major inter-Korean incident, of course. Or there’s a chance the North Koreans wouldn’t mention it—after all, that’s what they did when a man crossed the Demilitarised Zone in November,” said Oliver Hotham, Managing Editor of Korea Risk Group, the leading provider of risk analysis and news surrounding North Korea.
After the defection the South Korea would have to decide whether they would want to protect the defector, which would cause all kinds of problems. “I cannot and do not want to anticipate how the North Koreans will react,” said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, in an interview with the Global News.
If the South chose to protect the athlete their family members are still in the North where they will be sent to concentration camps.
So there you have it, this is what will happen if a North Korean athlete decides to defect, such an event would be one of the highlights of 2018 and its only February.