Gymnast Ri Se-gwang and weightlifter Rim Jong-sim of North Korea’s 2016 Olympic team are perhaps the luckiest people in the country after winning gold for their country in the competition.
What the victory meant to them was disturbingly clear when Ri Se-Gwang told the world, “I was filled with joy because I thought I was able to bring a sense of victory to our leader" after winning his medal.
After all, cases of people being punished quite severely for not making their “leader” happy, or failing to fulfill their duties, are not unheard of in the hermit kingdom.
In 2001, Cheol-woong, a pianist, was caught playing the “wrong” song and found himself under hours-long interrogation, answering questions like, "Where did you hear that music first? How did you feel when you heard that music? Who have you played this song to?"
That’s not all, he was forced to submit a 10-page written apology, and he believes he would have suffered further had he not come from such a powerful family.
But he was one of the lucky ones who got off easy.
The ill-fated players may remember the case of the manager of a commercial turtle farm in Taedonggang who was put to death by a displeased Kim Jong-un after several dozen of the creatures died at his farm.
Though people may be feeling sorry for Ri, the rest of the squad may have much more to worry about.
North Korea’s Olympic team was “warned” to win at least 17 medals including five golds. However, the poor athletes managed to bag only seven, two of them gold, while South Korean athletes went home with 21 medals, including nine golds.
A senior Olympic official, Yun Yong-bok, is known to have complained, “We didn’t come all the way here to win a meager five gold medals.”
It’s being said that the athletes could face not only the wrath of their Supreme Leader but also banishment to the dreaded coal mines. After all, such punishments are not unheard of in the hermit kingdom.
“The players and coach are rewarded with huge houses when they win. But they have to atone for losing by being sent to work in the coal mines,” said Moon Ki-Nam, a former North Korean football coach who fled the country in 2004, after the country’s national football team lost 7-0 to Portugal in the 2010 World Cup.
Toshimitsu Shigemura, an expert on the secretive nation, seconds that and fears Kim Jong-un will be angry and disappointed with the results and, “Those he feels have let him down are likely to be punished by being moved to poorer quality housing, having their rations reduced and, in the worst-case scenario, being sent to the coal mines as punishment.”
However, Kim Myong-chol, an unofficial spokesman for the communist state, reckons the country’s Olympians may get off lightly.
“They will get a warm welcome and be treated as heroes. It was a very strong showing by the North’s athletes, even if we did not do quite as well as in London. But if you rank the results in terms of gold medals per GDP, then North Korea is close to the top of the table,” he said.