August 9, 2012 by Julia
The first time I was reminded that North Korea would be at the Olympics was when I watched one of the first U.S. women’s soccer matches, and the commentators mentioned that North Korea was in our group. I was in the middle of Escape From Camp 14 at the time, which is about the first person born into a North Korean prison camp who successfully escaped, so the first thing I said to my husband was, “I hope that after the game, the entire North Korean team runs over to the U.S. bench and requests asylum.” Obviously, the U.S. women’s soccer team doesn’t have that kind of authority, but I wonder how the North Korean handlers (and mark my words, they have handlers-slash-prison-guards) would react. I assume the players would wait for a more opportune time, but then again, under the watchful eye of television cameras may be the safest place for them. (even better if it’s live TV, but this is NBC’s Olympic coverage we’re talking about here)
Later on, as I watched North Koreans compete in other sports, I got even more incensed at the totalitarian regime (which no longer calls itself communist, by the way. It bills itself as an anti-capitalist nation that puts its military first, although it was founded to be communist, so its kind of like fascism and communism had a super totalitarian baby who loves prison camps). In North Korea, basically everyone starves except for the people at the top–and, apparently, star athletes. I’m certainly not blaming or criticizing the athletes, who probably suffer in different and equally painful ways at the hands of trainers, but it is a pretty stark reminder of how dangerous and scary central planning can be.
Anyway, when I read today that seven Cameroonian Olympians have apparently defected, I immediately got my hopes up that some North Koreans would make it to freedom as well, especially when ABC reported the unsurprising news on August 2 that losing athletes likely face punishment, perhaps even labor camps. Unfortunately, they seem to be well controlled, as this fascinating history of Olympic defections explains. At least the Cubans seem like they have a shot at freedom (wait, I thought they had the best health care system in the world?*), but North Koreans are abused by their government even more than the Cubans are. It’s a victory if even one person makes it to freedom, I suppose, but that must be a hard decision for even people as oppressed as North Koreans, whose families will become targets if they defect.
It’s tragic all around, and I don’t have an easy answer.
*Seriously, people actually believe this. Like, not just useful idiots like Michael Moore–real, everyday people. Someone said it to me in person just a few days ago, no joke.