It’s extremely rare to get reliable information about the way North Korea likes to punish its athletes for failing to perform on the international stage. But thanks to Reuters reporter Heejung Jung, this week we have that… and a whole lot more.
In the remarkable March 1st article, former North Korean judo star Lee Chang-soo recalls how he was sent to a coal mine some 22 years ago. Although at the time he had won a silver medal in the under-78 kilograms bracket at the 1990 Asian Beijing Games, it was deemed not nearly good enough because the gold medalist in that same category was from dreaded South Korea (Kim Byong-joo). Chang-soo was eventually able to defect a year later, via Spain, and now resides at age 45 in Seoul.
As punishment for his defection, Chang-soo says his older brother was dispatched to a lumber camp, where the sibling later tragically died, while the rest of his family was shipped off to coal mines. Adding a touch of Shakespearean North Korean resonance to all this is the fact that Chang-soo has three sons of his own now and hopes to take revenge on his hated former homeland by guiding 17-year-old middle offspring Moon-jin to a judo gold medal at a future Olympic Games. (Dad missed his chance at such a feat because of DPRK boycotts of the 1984 LA and 1988 Seoul summer Olympics.)
There’s much more in the fascinating Reuters article, including how North Korean athletes were rewarded during the 1980s for more acceptable showings and how, after the initial coal mine banishment, Chang-soo was also briefly sent to boiler room duty for talking back to a coach. Not to mention the pivotal role played in his pathway to defection by Kim Jong-un‘s uncle Jang Song-thaek. A must-read.
[To view a circa-glory days photo of Chang-soo, click here.]