Asian Games: Kim Jong-Un seeks sporting boost

North Korea`s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un is punching his weight in international sports, winning badly needed friends through gold medals.

AFP| Updated: Oct 04, 2014, 15:13 PM IST
Asian Games: Kim Jong-Un seeks sporting boost

Incheon: North Korea`s supreme leader Kim Jong-Un is punching his weight in international sports, winning badly needed friends through gold medals.

The sight of South Koreans wildly cheering North Korea`s world record-breaking weightlifters and champion women footballers at the Asian Games in Incheon surprised many.

North Korea finished with 11 gold medals, their best Games since 1990 in Beijing. And the arrival of three top North Korean officials on Saturday for the Asiad closing ceremony heightened suspicions that sport is a handy cover for official business. 

Praising North Korea is banned in the South -- their 1950-53 war has never been officially ended -- and the 273 North Korean athletes and officials have been shadowed by hundreds of South Korean security service agents.

But crowds have delighted in the North`s medal performances and their tearful tributes to the leader who maintains a weightlifter`s grip on his nation.

South Koreans shouted for the North`s women`s football team when they beat Japan for the gold -- even though they ousted South Korea in the semi-final.

The North`s Kim Hyok-Bong and Kim Jong were given special united support when they took the table tennis mixed doubles gold.

South Koreans in the stadium chanted "We Are...", and the North Korea contingent replied "... One", in scenes unthinkable during recent military tensions.

The North`s athletes have been careful to attribute their success to Kim, who has not been seen for weeks amid speculation over his health. They had a special poetry and song meeting to praise him.

Om Yun-Chol, who broke his own 56kg class weightlifting world mark, said: "Comrade Kim Jong-Un taught us, you can break a rock with an egg and set a world record. That`s my secret."

Kim Un-Guk, who smashed three world records in the 62kg class, said Kim helped him treat a waist injury "with great, warm care and love" so he could compete. 

The young Kim is known to be a big sports fan.

He had a high-profile meeting with NBA legend Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang last year. He has also invested heavily in sport, despite the country`s growing international isolation and economic strife.

"Probably thanks to a new strategy of putting emphasis on sports, North Korea have been doing well in Incheon," Kwon Kyung-Sang, secretary-general of the games organising committee, told AFP.

"There is a visible difference between Kim Jong-Un and his late father in their sports policies," said Cheong Seong-Chang, a specialist on North Korea at the Sejong Institute.

"Undoubtedly the young leader is using the Incheon Asiad for political propaganda in a bid to consolidate his leadership and present a fresh national image," Chung said.

The success has been used at home and abroad.

North Korea`s KCNA news agency said the women`s football triumph "pushed the people across the country into ecstasy of joy."

While the Pyongyang media has made no direct mention that the Games are in South Korea, the North`s athletes and officials have held back from any criticism of the rival South.

And their success and restraint has been noticed abroad.

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), praised North Korea for attending the Incheon Games despite tensions on the peninsula.

The medal haul was "a very positive result for DPR Korea with the difficulties they are facing. But also there was a lot of excitement here during their participation," the sheikh told AFP.

"There was a lot of sporting behaviour and respect for each other and of course everybody supporting their team. Because of that it looked like it was a successful participation," he added.

Whether sporting diplomacy will last is another question.

During the Games, the North called South Korea`s President Park Geun-Hye a "political prostitute" for her call at the UN General Assembly for the rival state to improve its human rights and abandon nuclear weapons.

Even in sports there are some shadows.

Two days before the Games opening ceremony, the International Gymnastics Federation banned a North Korean gymnast who had lied about her age. The federation said the Pyongyang government submitted a fake passport for Cha Yong-Hwa.

And the triumphant women`s football team will not be at next year`s World Cup. They were banned for failing drug tests at the last cup in 2011.