With the upcoming Winter Olympics taking place in PyeongChang and tensions escalating on the Korean Peninsula, many are wondering whether North Korea’s actions will affect the Games. Here’s what fans should know about the history of North Korea at the Winter Olympics and their athletes’ prospects for 2018.
An important note: the host city of PyeongChang is located in the northeast region of South Korea and should not be confused with the similarly spelled Pyongyang, which is the capital of North Korea.
North Korea’s participation in the Olympics dates back to the 1950s. The Korean War effectively ended in 1953, when the United Nations and North Korea signed the Korean Armistice Agreement. Although there was never an official peace treaty between North and South Korea, meaning the two countries are still technically at war, the armistice established a ceasefire. It also led to the creation of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), located on the border of North and South Korea and about 40 miles away from PyeongChang.
During the same year, North Korea, officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, formed its own Olympic committee. Until this point, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had recognized a single Korean Olympic entity, but after applying in 1956, the North Korean Olympic body joined the IOC in 1957.
North Korea was first represented as an independent nation in the 1964 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. North Korea had two cross-country skiers each compete in the men’s 30km and women’s 10km competitions. However, none of the athletes cracked the top 30.
But on the ice, North Korea caught the speed skating world by surprise. Standing at 5’6, Han Pil-Hwa was a relative unknown in the women’s field in 1964.
The Soviets were expected to dominate the 3000m discipline like they had at the previous Games. Lydia Skobilkova and Valentina Stenina, who won gold and silver, respectively, in 1960, both returned to defend their medals.
Skobilkova was the heavy favorite to win repeat gold. She had already claimed three golds in Innsbruck, sweeping the 500m, 1000m and 1500m events. Only the 3000m was left. One more gold medal would make her the first Winter Olympian to win four individual gold medals at any Winter Games.
Han and Skobilkova were the last pair to skate. Han shocked many by not only skating well with Skobilkova, but keeping pace with her throughout the first six laps. By the end, the defending champion had gained a lead over the North Korean, but Han was close enough behind to earn silver, edging out Stenina by less than a tenth of a second.
Han was the only North Korean Olympian to reach the podium at the Innsbruck Games, and the first athlete from either North or South Korea to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. She is also still North Korea’s highest finisher in any Winter Games.
Since Innsbruck, North Korea has struggled to leave their mark in Winter Games. While they’ve collected 54 total medals in the Summer Olympics, they’ve won only one other Winter Olympic medal—a bronze medal earned by short track skater Hwang Ok-Sil in the 500m at the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics—and have participated in six out of 13 Winter Games since 1964. No North Korean athletes qualified to compete at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The Olympics have never been held in North Korea. South Korea hosted the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, which North Korea boycotted when the IOC rejected their proposal to make the Games a joint hosting between the two bordering nations. With political tensions rising around the world, North Korea’s move was praised by Cuba, Nicaragua and Ethiopia.
The two countries did march together under the Korean Unification Flag at three Olympics: the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, 2004 Athens Summer Games and 2006 Torino Winter Games. However, athletes from North and South Korea have never competed together in an Olympic sport.
Six months out from the next Olympics, and it is still unclear whether or not North Korea will participate in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games. South Korea’s president Jae-In Moon has said he hopes the two can work together for the sake of the Olympic Games.
Moon has also discussed the possibility of a unified team, and said South Korea is willing to help North Korean athletes prepare for the upcoming competition.
“The position of the IOC is very clear,” he said in June. “We have already invited the DPRK (North Korea) to participate in the Winter Games in 2018. We are supporting athletes in order to assist them to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
North Korea has yet to qualify for any event. Currently, the North Korean athletes with the best chance at competing in PyeongChang are the pairs skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik. They could earn one of four remaining quota spots at the last figure skating Olympic qualifier, the Nebelhorn Trophy, which will be held in Germany in late September.
There have also been discussions regarding the inclusion of North Korea in the Olympic torch relay. The suggested plan would have the torch travel through Pyongyang and other key spots of North Korea, a source told The Korea Herald, before returning to South Korea for the Opening Ceremony.
“I think (North Korea’s Olympic attendance) would greatly contribute in realizing Olympic values, which are about bringing humanity together and promoting world peace,” said Moon in June 2017.