Not a single North Korean athlete qualified for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. That was no obstacle, however, to North Korea’s titular head of state and president of its “parliament,” Kim Yong Nam, leading a delegation of North Korean officials to the Olympics. According to North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, they were seen off at the Pyongyang airport on Feb. 5 by “a suite” of fellow North Korean officials, as well as the Russian ambassador to North Korea.
Once in Russia, Kim Yong Nam and his suite appear to have fashioned their own athletics-free Olympic program of sorts, stopping en route in Vladivostok to meet with the local governor, and in Moscow to meet with various officials, including the chairwoman of the Russian Federation Council (the upper house of the Russian parliament), Putin ally Valentina Ivanovna Matvienko.
But those were just the qualifying heats. Then it was on to the main event in Sochi, where Kim Yong Nam and his team went for the gold — with Kim starring in North Korea’s domestic TV broadcast of the opening ceremony, and meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (who sent his “sincere regard” to North Korea’s young tyrant Kim Jong Un), as well as with China’s President Xi Jinping, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and the presidents of Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Armenia. For photos, and further details, North Korea Leadership Watch has an excellent rundown.
Like many activities related to North Korea, the Sochi tour of this aging totalitarian functionary and his retinue (presumably at least one of them was also his minder) has its streak of dark comedy — grist for some Orwellian standup routine. But it’s not actually funny. It is dangerous, and tragic.
Dangerous, because Russia has a long record of abetting sanctions violations that benefit rogue states. It is worth asking whether Kim and his team were hoping to get more out of this Olympic tour than simply a chance to wave hi from Sochi to the folks back home, and look in on winter games featuring none of their own athletes.
Tragic for the obvious reason that the Korean people living under the jackboot of the Pyongyang regime deserve so much better. However obvious that is, it cannot be said enough — until Pyongyang’s totalitarian, missile-building, nuclear-testing and child-stunting-and-starving regime comes to an end. To see what life could be like for the people of North Korea, all you have to do is look to thriving and democratic South Korea, where the face right now of the Olympic team is not an aging envoy bound on pain of death to render absolute loyalty to a bloody-handed tyrant, but 24-year-old speed skater Lee Sang Hwa, who on Tuesday won gold in the ladies 500 meter race.