A look back at North Korea's history at the Olympic Games

Rim Jong Sim won North Korea’s first Olympic gold in Rio in the women’s 75kg weightlifting on Aug 12, 2016.
Rim Jong Sim won North Korea’s first Olympic gold in Rio in the women’s 75kg weightlifting on Aug 12, 2016.PHOTO: SCREENGRAB FROM YOUTUBE

North Korea has been in the news recently for trading insults and threats with Washington and Seoul over its nuclear and missile tests.

But the reclusive state grabbed headlines for different reasons on Tuesday (Jan 9), after it emerged it would send a delegation to next month's Feb 9-25 Winter Olympics in South Korea.

The breakthrough arrangement came after representatives from the two countries met at the Panmunjom "peace village" in the demilitarised zone for high-level talks for the first time since 2015.

The North Korean delegation that is set to travel to Pyeongchang will include athletes, officials and a cheer squad, although only two of its athletes have qualified to compete.

The Straits Times looks at North Korea's participation at the Olympics through the years.

Heavy lifting at the Games

North Korea has been competing in the Winter Games since 1964 and the Summer Games since 1972.

It has won 56 medals in total - 16 of them gold, and all of them at the Summer Olympics.

Perhaps surprisingly for a country, where, according to a United Nations report last year, two in five of its population are undernourished, most of its medals have come in weightlifting (17), wrestling (10), boxing and judo (eight each).

However, North Korea's first Olympic gold was won by a shooter.

Ri Ho Jun, then 25, triumphed in the mixed 50m rifle (prone) event at the 1972 Munich Games.

He was awarded the title of Merited Master of Sport of the USSR - the highest Soviet accolade for an athlete in socialist nations - and later reportedly became Kim Jong Il's closest bodyguard.

North Korea then joined the Soviet Union's lead in boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, before deciding to also boycott the next edition, which was held in Seoul.

Their athletes' best performance at the Olympics came at the 1992 Barcelona Games and 2012 London Games, where they brought home four gold medals each time.

Mercedes Benz prizes... or coal mines

Elite athletes, particularly those who have won international competitions like the Olympics, are treated well by the North Korean regime.

Sporting champions are well-rewarded with cars - Mercedes Benz is usually the choice vehicular prize - and even apartments, and victory parades are common.

But there have been rumours that athletes who do badly have been sent to prison camps or to work in coal mines.

A North Korean judoka named Lee Chang Soo said he was sentenced to hard labour in a coal mine because he lost to South Korean Chung Hoon, in the final of the 1990 Beijing Asian Games. Lee defected to South Korea a year later, after competing in Spain.

Two who could dance in Pyeongchang

North Korea's figure skating pair of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik earned qualification to the Winter Olympics after finishing sixth at the CS Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany. PHOTO: REUTERS

After finishing sixth at the CS Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany, the figure skating pair of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik earned qualification to the Winter Olympics.

But North Korea missed the Oct 30 registration deadline. Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and South Korean authorities, however, have said that a remedy could be found, with the IOC saying in a statement that it "welcomed" North Korea's interest in competing in Pyeongchang.

Ryom, who will turn 19 on Feb 2, and Kim, 25, trained in Montreal last year under Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte. Interestingly, Marcotte was also working with South Korean pair Alex Kang-chan Kam and Kim Kyu Eun.

Kam said the two pairs of Korean skaters became close after training with each other, and even exchanged food.

"As we trained together for two months in Canada, we became close easily because we speak the same language," said Kam. "We rooted for each other and we said that we should meet in Pyeongchang."

Here is a list of the North Koreans who have won Olympic titles:

1972: Ri Ho Jun (shooting, mixed 50m rifle, prone)

1976: Gu Yong Ju (boxing, men's bantamweight)

1992: Choi Chul Su (boxing, men's flyweight), Pae Gil Su (gymnastics, men's pommel horse), Kim Il (wrestling, men's freestyle 48kg), Ri Hak Son (wrestling, men's freestyle 52kg)

1996: Kye Sun Hui (judo, women's 48kg), Kim Il (wrestling, men's freestyle 48kg) 2008: Hong Un Jong (gymnastics, women's vault), Pak Hyon Suk (weightlifting, women's 63kg)

2012: Om Yun Chol (weightlifting, men's 56kg), Kim Un Guk (weightlifting, men's 52kg), Rim Jong Sim (weightlifting, women's 69kg), An Kum Ae (judo, women's 52kg)

2016 Rio Games: Rim Jong Sim (weightlifting, women's 75kg), Ri Se Gwang (gymnastics, men's vault)