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North Korean national athlete's message of hope to former teammates at the Pyeongchang Olympics

Kim Myung  |  2018-02-09 16:18

Members of the North Korean women's ice hockey team arrive in South Korea on January 25.
Image: Unification Ministry

I watched the North Korean athletes on the news coming through the airport in South Korea, and became teary-eyed at the sight of the girls putting on their smiles. As a former national athlete for North Korea myself, I can understand exactly what they are going through.

As the confirmation of the North's participation in the Games was quite sudden, instead of feeling excited about their arrival, the athletes are likely under a great deal of pressure and stress due to intense training for the 'ideological and spiritual battle' undertaken in the weeks prior to departure.

I felt an urge to reach out and grab their hands and tell them, "I missed you." But all of them know that if they were to respond to me, the ever-present minders would see it, and they would be punished for political crimes.

When I was still a national athlete in North Korea, we received extensive ideological education and training. We were expected to be perfect models of the nation's 'sports culture,' and every detail of our training process was strictly controlled. National athletes for North Korea are not allowed to venture out while they are in training or competition. During competitions abroad, especially during the Olympics in South Korea, they will be watched at every moment, and they will not be allowed to express a single word of their own.

But they also know that winning a gold medal at the Olympics will earn them a home in Pyongyang. Seeing this coverage has brought back memories of my time as an athlete, and that more than Europe, Southeast Asia, and everywhere else, these athletes compete fiercely for the chance to come to South Korea.

The athletes themselves endure their training and cherish each other. I remember celebrating our birthdays, and how our coach would treat us on our birthdays, even inviting the other lower-level athletes to the national athletes cafeteria for special meals on these occasions.

The bond between North Korean athletes is strong. I remember running a great distance one time for a chance to attend the birthday party of one of the other athletes. Our coach challenged us to run all the way to Taesong Mountain from the Taedong River in Pyongyang within two hours, so I woke up at 5 a.m. to run the journey and received a slip of paper from the coach at the end. That meant we were allowed to go out and celebrate the birthday of our teammate.

We put our money together and went to Okryugwan (a famous restaurant in Pyongyang), where I scarfed down two bowls of naengmyeon (cold noodle dish). Then, for dinner, we were invited by one of our seniors who had retired and was running a restaurant to earn foreign-currency (for the government). Like family, we were treated to beer and delicious food. I wish I could do the same for my juniors who are coming to the Pyeongchang Olympics.

I want to talk to the athletes coming this week to South Korea, to tell them that they worked hard, to cry together, and to ask about my family and friends still in Pyongyang. But alas, this is impossible, and its such a shame.

I will nevertheless cherish our bond and cheer for the North Korean athletes during this year's Winter Olympics. I hope they can form great memories of their experiences during the games and achieve victory atop the snow and ice.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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