Applaud or Else: The Gulag
We have seen many sports-related turning points in PyeongChang Olympics, such as the Dutch not getting enough of taste of medal, or Mirai Nagasu’s triple Axel.
But the real turning point during the Olympics was one that is very political. Host South Korea invited North Korean athletes and their delegation to PyeongChang. North Korea accepted the invitation. There were those who found this encouraging as opening a line of dialogue with closed totalitarian regimes may turn out to be good and may theoretically prevention a possible nuclear war or catastrophe down the line. But there were also those who were not exactly happy with the invitation. Many South Koreans saw the invitation as a move that legitimizes an oppressive regime that divided Korea. We have seen South Korean spectators with flags of united Korea during some of the events that’s North Koreans were competing in.
Nevertheless, the North Korean athletes and their delegation surely attracted a lot of attention. There was a cloud of curiosity around Kim Jong-Un’s sister. North Korea’s Olympic delegation had 500 people in it, out of which only 22 were athletes. Half the delegation, in fact, were cheerleaders whom the North Korean leader calls “Army of Beauties.” We have all seen and made fun of the video with the North Korean spectators all dressed in red and cheering in unison. We may have found this display funny and worthy of mockery, but the facts behind this squad is sad and disheartening.
These young women are, of course, chosen primarily for their attractiveness. In fact, Kim Jong’s wife Ri Sol Ju used to be a member of the team. They have been around since 2002 supporting North Korean athletes in various national and international sporting events. In order to prevent possible defections, the members are primarily chosen from the country’s most prominent and influential families. These women, after all, act as more than simple cheerleaders, they are used as propaganda tools. They are expected to make us believe that all North Koreans are patriotic and ardent supporters of their athletes, and by proxy, their leader. The cheerleading team were present at Incheon in South Korea in 2005, but 21 members were sent to labor camps upon their return simply because they had talked about what they had seen and witnessed in South Korea. They had seen firsthand that the South was not drenched in misery and unhappiness as the North had been trying to convey. They had seen that democracy was not all that bad, and they had talked about it to their friends and family about it. And for this tiny error in judgement, they had to endure years of hard labor at labor camps to appease their beloved leader.
Sometimes there is sadness, rather than enthusiasm, behind the applause.
Originally published in Turkish in Socrates Dergi