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N. Korea eyes return to top 10 in Asiad medal table south of border

All Headlines 08:29 August 18, 2014

SEOUL, Aug. 18 (Yonhap) -- Despite lingering tensions with its southern neighbor, North Korea has committed to participate in the Asian Games to be held south of the border, where the reclusive communist regime will hope to return to respectability.

North Korea recently submitted a list of 150 athletes in 14 sports for the Asiad that will take place in Incheon, just west of Seoul, from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4. North Korea also competed in the last Asian Games held in the South, the 2002 event in Busan.

In a competition largely dominated by China, South Korea and Japan -- the three have occupied the top three spots in the medal table in every Asiad since 1978 -- North Korea will try to crack the top 10 for the first time in a dozen years.

North Korea grabbed nine gold medals to rank ninth at the Busan Asian Games in 2002. The North had also been in the top 10 in each of its previous four appearances -- 1978, 1982, 1990 and 1998 -- but the streak ended in 2006 in Doha, Qatar, where the North ranked 16th. The country was only slightly better, ranking 12th in Guangzhou, China, four years later.

N. Korea eyes return to top 10 in Asiad medal table south of border - 2

Kim Dong-sun, professor of sports management at Kyonggi University and an expert in North Korean sports, pointed to the economic downturn in the North that began in the mid-1990s as the main cause of the decline in athletic competitiveness.

"In the 1990s, North Korea didn't participate in international events that much," Kim said. "And that led to a decline in the level of performance across the field."

During the previous regime of the late Kim Jong-il, Pyongyang didn't invest as much in sports as in other areas, the professor noted. The current leader, Kim Jong-un, has been more actively promoting sports since taking over the reins from his deceased father.

The junior Kim, known as an avid fan of NBA basketball, established the State Physical Culture and Sports Guidance Commission under the powerful National Defense Commission in November 2012. According to the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, Kim has made 25 public appearances at sporting events in the past 20 months, up from just six such appearances in 2012.

The North has claimed that it has collected about 360 medals at some 60 international events in different sports between January and October last year, more than four times the medal tally from 2012.

Those medal winners have received a hero's welcome and Pyongyang has feted them with gifts.
North Korea has also built a sports science institute, and its state media have expanded their sports coverage.

Whether Pyongyang's rising interest in sports will translate into athletes' better performances remains to be seen.

North Korea captured three gold medals and one bronze medal in weightlifting at the 2012 London Olympics, and the three champions, Om Yun-chol in the men's under-56kg, Kim Un-guk in the men's 69kg, and Rim Jong-sim in the women's 69kg, will be in Incheon.

The women's football team, which won the Women's East Asian Cup in South Korea last year, will arrive in Incheon as the gold medal favorite.

The table tennis mixed doubles duo of Kim Hyok-bong and Kim Jong won the world championship last year in Paris and will try to claim their first Asian Games gold together.

Ri Se-gwang is expected to duel South Korea's Yang Hak-seon for the gold medal in the men's vault in artistic gymnastics. Yang won the 2010 Asian Games gold, two years before claiming his first Olympic title, while Ri was the 2006 Asiad gold medalist.

Another North Korean medal contender will be Kim Kum-ok in women's marathon. She won the bronze at the 2010 Asian Games and won her third Asian Marathon Championships title last year.

Kim Dong-sun, the sports administration professor, said North Korea will try to rally its people, disgruntled over financial hardships, around athletic accomplishments at the Asian Games. The North may also seek to use the Asiad to shed its image as a secluded and inflexible nation, he said.

"The North Korean media have been reporting frequently on Kim Jong-un's visits to sporting events and carrying his comments on the upcoming Asian Games," the professor added. "North Korea will likely concentrate on its strong events to make its presence felt."


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