A photo of a North and South Korean gymnast taking a selfie at the Olympics has raised more than a few brows.
Olympic gymnast Lee Eun-Ju of South Korea recently snapped a selfie with Hong Un Jong of North Korea during the games in Rio de Janeiro. It’s no secret that North and South Korea aren’t exactly friends, which is why many people are wondering whether North Korea’s Hong will face repercussions when she returns home after.
Some have speculated the type of severe punishments she could possibly be dealt with including strenuous labor, imprisonment or even a firing squad for a seemingly innocent interaction she had with a South Korean. However, that is far from the case.
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According to Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the U.S. Korea Institute in Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University, North Korea has strived towards “sports diplomacy” as part of its national policy since the 1980’s.
“It is one — distinctly non-politicized — way for the politically isolated North to interact with the outside world and benefit from intercultural contact and exchanges.
Sports diplomacy is one of the few available ways North Korea is able to pursue public affairs diplomacy. In fact, Hong was photographed embracing American gymnast and current Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles during an international competition in 2014.
In the past, the DPRK has attempted to negotiate with Seoul on the possibility of sending a joint Korean team to the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics. Kim Jong-un has also been a big proponent of sports diplomacy and directed a lot of the country’s resources to constructing and building competition venues and practice facilities for athletes.
As an athlete from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, representing the country to the rest of the world in the Olympics is a huge honor and winning athletes are welcomed back home with state titles and awards.
Successful athletes are well publicized by state media and some even get their careers documented in films. Sports achievements are a quick way to move into North Korea’s elite. For example, “merited” athletes were given their own designated and fully furnished housing with members of their families in 2013.
Of course, these the things that await winning athletes who are successful in their sport. BBC reports that the last credible report of harsh punishments including incarceration or execution for athletes who perform poorly is from 25 years ago. Madden concludes:
“The reality is, the worst that usually happens to athletes who fail to place or win at competitions is that North Korean state media doesn’t mention them.”