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February 14, 2018

GEORGE W. BUSH INSTITUTE: North Korea at the Olympics: Appearances vs. Reality

This article was written by Ioanna Papas and appeared originally on the George W. Bush Institute website (

As North Korea is seeking positive attention at the Winter Olympics, we should be wary of what is presented.

It will be enchanting to watch a sea of women perform synchronized choreography and hear their lyrical voices chant as North Korean teams compete in the Winter Olympics. These women, also known as North Korea’s cheerleaders, were hand selected based on their beauty and status.

But, what the public doesn’t see is that these women are used as a political tool to glorify the regime and demonstrate popular support. They are under intense scrutiny to ensure they don’t defect, and, back home, their families are monitored closely.

This form of propaganda is common in North Korea. Pageantry and propaganda are used as tools to distract from the cruelties of poverty, slave labor, and the deplorable conditions that North Koreans endure daily.

A $35 million ski lodge, built at the order of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in 2013, was highlighted in the media recently for hosting the South Korean Olympic skiers. What was not featured were last year’s reports from NBC News about the hundreds of workers, including children as young as 11, forced to work at the resort in “biting cold” conditions. The workers were given sticks and pickaxes to keep the resort open. 

This back-breaking labor is not unusual in North Korea.

According to the Global Slavery Index, an estimated 1,100,000 North Koreans are involved in slavery. And, an estimated 50,000 North Korean citizens work abroad in mining, logging, and textile and construction industries. And, according to the United Nations, an estimated 41 percent of the population is undernourished, and 28 percent of the children under five have stunted growth. 

In late January the ski resort was also highlighted on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt. Staged video footage showed North Koreans cheerfully skiing on the slopes. However, with the ski resort costing $100 a day, the slopes normally remain empty. In 2013, analysts estimated North Koreans’ per capita income to be around $1,000 to $2,000 USD per year, which is about $4 a day.

It’s important to note that while Holt was widely criticized for his coverage of North Korea, he stated that he wasn’t free to cover what he wanted. He said he was closely minded by the government, but still thought it was important to give viewers a rare look inside the country.

It is good when opposing nations come together, but it also pays to maintain a degree of skepticism. As we watch the games unfold, we must remember that only 50 miles away is the Demilitarized Zone and North Korea where millions are living in poverty.


(Photo credit: A North Korean cheering band leaves a welcoming ceremony for North Korea's athletes, at the athletes village of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic games. ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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