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(Asiad) N. Korea returns to Asiad top 10 after more than a decade

2014/10/05 08:00

By Oh Seok-min

INCHEON, Oct. 5 (Yonhap) -- Aided by world record-breaking performances by its weightlifters, North Korea made a comeback to the top 10 in the Asiad medal tally for the first time in 12 years at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games.

The communist country also drew spotlight for its proactive sports diplomacy by unprecedentedly sending high-ranking party officials as well as those from the sports circle to the South, boosting expectations that the continental event would serve as a breakthrough for icy inter-Korean ties.

With 150 athletes competing in 14 out of 36 sports at the multisport competition held in South Korea's western port city of Incheon, the North bagged a total of 11 gold, 11 silver and 14 bronze medals to finish seventh.

This is North Korea's first Asiad and the second major international competition since its young leader Kim Jong-un took the helm of the country. Kim has put much emphasis on promoting both the sports sector and physical activities among the people under the motto of building "a strong sports powerhouse."

   At the 2002 Asiad in South Korea's southern port city of Busan, the North picked up nine gold medals to finish ninth, but it slipped to 16th at the 2006 Doha games and 12th at the 2010 Guangzhou Asiad by winning six golds each time.

Its weightlifters lifted their home country up to the top 10.

Of the 15 gold medals at stake in weightlifting, the North took four, only behind China's seven. Three of the gold medalists -- Om Yun-chol, Kim Un-guk and Kim Un-ju -- also set four world records.

Elsewhere, North Korea won its third Asiad gold in women's football.

According to the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which provided major coverage on the football gold, the victory "has lashed the whole country into ecstasy of joy." In the men's event, the North won silver after losing to South Korea in the final.

Two female gymnasts -- Hong Un-jong and Kim Un-hyang -- claimed the top spot on the podium, with four other sports also witnessing the North Korean athletes dominating the stage.

Though North Korea picked up 36 medals from 10 different sports, the title winners had the identical reaction to their victories: "Thank you, Marshall Kim Jong-un."

   Last Saturday, the 273-member delegation here even held a nighttime meeting "longing for" its leader where they recited a poem and sang a song to glorify the dear leader, according to the KCNA.

Weighlifter Kim Un-guk of North Korea shouts in joy after winning the gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games on Sept. 20, 2014. (Yonhap) Weighlifter Kim Un-guk of North Korea shouts in joy after winning the gold medal at the Incheon Asian Games on Sept. 20, 2014. (Yonhap)

Citing an unfavorable reaction from Seoul as the reason, Pyongyang reversed its earlier decision to send its vibrant cheerleaders here, and their vacancy was filled by middle-aged officials who wore the white and red training uniform and waved the national flag to root for their comrades.

South Koreans also joined them in the stands, hoping that the amiable gestures toward the North would help bring peace on the Korean Peninsula. North Korean athletes and coaches expressed gratitude for their warm applause.

The two Koreas technically remain at war as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty. The two countries still define each other as "the main enemy."

   Throughout their three-week stay here, North Koreans were every bit as reclusive as they've known to be.

The authorities often cordoned off venues where the athletes from the North practiced and stayed before and after the games, with its officials being usually reticent. It was also not unusual for their medalists and coaches to skip the post-match press conferences.

But watchers here say things have gotten far more amicable than before.

Reporters from the North stayed in the official media village in Incheon, sharing the building with many other journalists from different countries, including the host nation. The gold-winning female footballers presented to South Korean voluntary workers flowers they had received during the victory ceremony.

The North's athletes and reporters, with a faint smile, often greeted South Korean reporters and exchanged a few words with them.

It remains to be seen if the friendly atmosphere created by soft power-based exchanges will have enough ripple effects to lay the foundation for driving realpolitik out of the peninsula.

On the final day at the Asiad on Saturday, a delegation made of up Kim Jong-un's key aides -- Hwang Pyong-so, top political officer of the Korean People's Army; Choe Ryong-hae; and Kim Yang-gon -- traveled to Incheon and held talks with Seoul's national security adviser, Kim Kwan-jin, and Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae.

"It is unprecedented that such key party figures came to South Korea at the same time. It is not an exaggeration to say that leader Kim Jong-un sent his envoys seeking a breakthrough to the deadlocked inter-Korean relations," said Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University.

"By boosting sports, Pyongyang has an aim to shed the country's image as one of the world's most impoverished nations, and it now appears to look beyond to achieve something more than that," he added.

North Korean footballers greet South Koreans who cheered for them during the final competition on Oct. 1, 2014. (Yonhap file photo) North Korean footballers greet South Koreans who cheered for them during the final competition on Oct. 1, 2014. (Yonhap file photo)