North Korea's athlete factories: how they work

[As Heard in North Korea]
Seol Song Ah  |  2018-02-01 11:19

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain radio programming content broadcast by Unification Media Group [UMG], an independent multimedia consortium targeting the North Korean people.

Athletes from the North Korean female ice hockey team arrive for training in South Korea.
Image: South Korean Ministry of Unification
Unification Media Group (UMG): With the PyeongChang Olympics less than two weeks away, a group of North Korean womens ice hockey athletes arrived in South Korea to begin training with their South Korean counterparts. The two groups of athletes will comprise a joint squad for the upcoming games. The worlds eyes are fixed on the latest developments involving the Norths athletes, but today we will look at how most athletes are treated in North Korea. For a close up look, we turn to reporter Seol Song Ah.
Seol Song Ah (Seol): Since the inception of his reign, Kim Jong Un has focused on development of the countrys athletics programs. In the 2012 London Olympic Games, the North netted four gold medals, and its womens soccer team won the title in the 2013 East Asian Football Federation, which took place in Korea, and was victorious in the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. Kim Jong Un personally cheered on the womens soccer team.
This represents a marked change from the Kim Jong Il era. Under Kim Jong Il, artistic pursuits were encouraged over athletic ones. While successful athletes did receive preferential treatment during the reign of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, they were generally granted salaries and awards that were one notch below the artists.
UMG: Can you tell us about the selection, development, and supervision that these athletes receive in North Korea?

Seol: Observers are pointing out that North Korea has envisioned participating in this years winter Olympics for over a year, and began to select its athletes around then. The Joseon Athletics Guidance Committee oversees this process. A national athletics organization is formed by combining athletes in the elite category (equal or better than level four) from three different groups: the April 25th Athletics Club from the Ministry of the Peoples Armed Forces, the Yalu Athletics Club from the Ministry of Peoples Safety, and the Locomotive Athletics Club from the rail ministry.  
In addition, any athlete that comes first in a national competition is also eligible to represent the country at international tournaments, even if they arent from the elite level. Once the teams are assembled, they gather for training at a central athletics club in the Pyongchon region of Pyongyang. Clubs that have many athletes selected for the national teams send their coaches and managers in to lead the teams. The coaches and the athletics clubs both fall under the supervision of the Joseon Athletics Guidance Committee.

UMG: You mentioned that the athletes are grouped under different ratings. Can you explain this process to us?
Seol: Every athletics club ranks its athletes. In the beginning, the athletes have no ranking whatsoever, but as they achieve success and compete, they get listed. The lowest level is seven, and the more accomplished athletes are able to climb through the levels as they earn victories. Level one is the top. Even if they never make it to the Olympics, some athletes are able to achieve level four simply by competing for a period of ten years.

Athletes who compete on the world stage and earn a gold medal become level one or two. The titles of the competitors also change as they achieve success. Those who win in regional Asian games are referred to as Meritorious Athletes. But those who succeed in global competition are called Peoples Athletes.

If an athlete is able to cast a particularly positive light on the country or the leader, they can be given a loftier title, such as Work Hero or Hero of the Republic. These athletes can even become members of North Koreas rubber stamp parliament. They receive cars and homes as a reward, and can amass some political clout. Two examples of such athletes are World Table Tennis champion Park Yong Sun and marathon winner Jong Song Ok.  

UMG: Are the athletes given salaries? How are the amounts determined?
Seol: According to a defector with whom I spoke who left in 2011 and was formerly a national North Korean athlete, those who are level five or worse do not receive that much, but athletes at level four and higher earn compensation that is equivalent to what factory managers make. Level one athletes earn even more money than a provincial chairman makes.
According to the defector, athletes receive their salaries from the local sports club. Those who receive gold medals from international competitions have any earnings from international organizations re-routed to the national Athletics Guidance Committee. The athletes are then given an additional monthly compensation from the committee over and above their ordinary salary. 

An interesting point of note is that every athletics club has its own foreign currency earning office attached to it. This is necessary to secure funding for the training of the athletes. This began under Kim Jong Ils leadership when individual agencies were instructed to secure their own funding sources. For example, the April 25th Athletics Club, a subdivision of the Ministry of the Peoples Armed Forces, receives its funding from Kangsung Trading Company, which also operates under the Ministry of the Peoples Armed Forces. The defector explained that the strength of the foreign currency earning operations attached to the athletics clubs determines how strong the training program is, and how successful the athletes are.  

UMG: Can you talk about the process that the athletics clubs use to select the athletes?
Seol: Interestingly, the athletics clubs do not pay much attention to a potential athletes social ranking when doing their recruiting. Normally, songbun (North Koreas strict social hierarchy based on political loyalty and family history) is an extremely important limiting and enabling factor for a North Korea persons career. Thats because there simply arent many chances to send athletes abroad for competition. They have decided to put talent first in the recruitment process. However, when the national teams are assembled for international games, songbun does become a factor in the selection process.  
If the athletes get the chance to compete abroad, they will likely be exposed in many ways to capitalist culture.
UMG: It seems like North Korean athletes dont have many inconveniences in their daily lives. Is that true?

Seol: Not really. The athletes are one step below artists in terms of pay. To put it another way, the level three athletes get the same pay that a level four artist makes. In addition, the athletes need to win in international competition to earn rewards from the state. Artists receive large gifts every time their work ends up in an event or performance associated with the leader. Seeing this, many athletes get frustrated.   
The athletes feel that they are sweating and working hard to raise the national flag, but yet they get neglected. The artists on the other hand, merely have to go on stage and sing If We Defend, We Achieve Victory, and the prizes are heaped on them.
There are no confirmed reports that Kim Jong Un, who values athletics pursuits, has raised the salaries for athletes. It is believed that Hyon Song Wol, leader of the Moranbong Band, makes the most money.

UMG: Im curious to learn how athletes are treated after they retire. Can they become coaches?
Seol: Even the well renowned athletes – like the Meritorious Athletes, and Peoples Athletes cannot instantly become coaches after retirement. They have to attend Joseon Athletics University for four years first. They receive money for living expenses from the athletics clubs while they attend. As soon as they graduate and return to the clubs, they can become coaches.    
Because there arent many Peoples Athletes and Meritorious Athletes in North Korea, the strength of the club also partially rests on the status of the coaches. Strong coaches can become a figurehead for their clubs. If this happens, theyll get the chance to participate in international games and will be promoted faster.
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