Exporting North Korean Gulag Must Not Be Permitted at Future Olympics

Kim Kum Sok of North Korea competes during the men's 69-kg weightlifting competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, Ju
Kim Kum Sok of North Korea competes during the men's 69-kg weightlifting competition at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

After 17 amazing days, the London Olympics are over. For millions of people around the world who were transfixed by this unique celebration of sport and the human spirit, the afterglow of these inspiring days of competition will linger for many days to come. What stays with us are the unforgettable personal stories of courage, hope, and endurance; indeed, with the Olympics, it is often as much about the stories as the competition. However, we would do well to realize that one of the most telling stories of these Games is one we were not permitted to hear at all. Namely, the hidden, suppressed, and undeniably grim story of the athletes of North Korea.

While most Olympic athletes had an extraordinary opportunity to mingle with competitors from every corner of the globe, the North Korean team was treated like high-security prisoners by their ever-present minders. Sadly, the isolation the North Koreans experienced in the Olympic Village was not the worst of their problems. The testimony of former North Korean athletes who managed to defect suggests that while successful Olympians are rewarded with refrigerators and other luxuries, those who are deemed to have dishonored the country with poor performances are in danger of being sent to work camps. And under North Korea's twisted philosophy of collective punishment, it is often an entire family that is sent to be starved, tortured and in some cases killed in these appalling prison camps.

Many of the London athletes have incredible stories of overcoming adversity in their lives or in their home countries, but at least they are permitted to tell their story. For example, the Afghan 100-meter sprinter, Tahmina Kohistani, has faced threats, hostility, and danger from radical Islamists in her homeland and she anticipates more of the same when she returns home. As she told the Washington Post, "Right now, when I go back home, there will be a lot of problems, people who are waiting for me, people who will do things wrong with me." Contrast her sobering candor with the strange interview of Kim Un-Guk, North Korea's gold medalist in the 62 Kilo weight lifting competition, who said, "I won first place because the shining Supreme Commander Kim Jong-Un gave me power and courage."

Perhaps even more telling is the truly bizarre statement made on North Korean State TV to rebut the accusation that its athletes face punishment if they fail to satisfy the demands of their country. According to the official news anchor, "Our glorious leader will merely send those athletes to special sports retreats for four years where they will play fun games in the grassy fields and eat and drink as much crackers and water as they wish." How reassuring.

Something has to change. The Olympics are meant to be a place where politics and division can briefly be set aside in pursuit of both athletic excellence and greater understanding among nations. This noble aspiration has not always been met, but striving towards it requires the participation of as many nations as possible. For that reason, North Korea and other closed societies belong at the Games. But countries like North Korea must not be permitted to make a mockery of these ideals by the way they treat their athletes, both during and after the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must do more to address this outrage. Given the extraordinary propaganda benefits that the North Korean regime reaps from the Games, leverage can be exercised to ensure that North Korean athletes participate in future Games as peers, not prisoners. The IOC is justly proud of their vigilance for ensuring fair competition through extensive drug-testing, but by permitting the North Korean government to export their gulag mentality to the Olympic Village, they are allowing a much more dangerous poison into the Olympic bloodstream.