North Korea Is in Winter Olympics Without Any Star Athletes

Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik of North Korea performed in September.

North Korea has agreed to send a team to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea next month.

While the decision may help defuse nuclear tension with the West, in terms of sports, it is unlikely to bring the emergence of a hidden-away North Korea version of Shaun White or Yuzuru Hanyu.

It is not known how many North Koreans will wind up participating. But the athletes who do are not likely to shake up the medal table.

So far, North Korea has qualified only two athletes for the Games, the figure skating pair of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik. They missed a deadline to apply for a spot, but that is expected to be overlooked. The International Olympic Committee has also indicated a willingness to grant some wild-card entries to other North Korean athletes.

Ryom and Kim were 15th at the last world championships, and few expect them to improve much on that performance at the Games.

Beyond Ryom and Kim, the prospective crop of athletes are mostly unknown on the international scene. Many recent world championships in winter sports, including the traditional Korean strengths of short and long track speedskating, have had no North Korean entrants at all.

Although it is possible that North Korea has a hidden gem — its 1964 speedskating silver medalist, Han Pil-hwa, came out of nowhere — it seems as if most of its athletes will be destined for also-ran finishes.

The biggest impact by the North Korean delegation at Pyeongchang might be by the cheerleading squad or performance art group it plans to send.

North Korea has attended Winter Games sporadically, starting in 1964. It has won two medals, a silver in speedskating in 1964 and a bronze in short-track speedskating in 1992.

North Korea failed to qualify any athletes four years ago. In 2010, its two athletes, a figure skater and a speedskater, did not finish better than ninth.

North Korea has been much more successful in the Summer Games. It has competed in them since 1972, though it boycotted the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul. It has won 54 medals, 16 of them gold, in events including weight lifting, wrestling, gymnastics and boxing.

It won two gold and seven total medals in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. Both of its winners, in gymnastics and weight lifting, were the favorites going in.

In November 1987, nearly a year before the Summer Games in Seoul, a South Korean airliner exploded, killing more than 100 people. Western intelligence agencies say North Korea was responsible and the United States considers it a terrorist attack. Just last month, Foreign Policy magazine ran a disquieting headline: “Will North Korea Blow Up the Winter Olympics?”

Though we are unlikely to hear the North Korean anthem next month, the attendance of its athletes surely comes as a relief to Olympics organizers.

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