There have been several, deeply worrying reports of underperforming athletes being punished
FOR North Korean athletes, the prospect of failure on the big stage carries a punishment far worse than a damaged ego.
Having failed to land a single medal in South Korea so far, its Winter Olympic team could suffer the same fate as previous underperforming athletes – imprisonment in one of the country’s sick gulags.
The most infamous case is that of the North Korean football team which made history for reaching the second round of the 1966 World Cup.
Former leader Kim Il-Sung is widely believed to have ordered them to be arrested after they lost to 5-3 Portugal days after they were seen drinking with local women in public.
Instead of going home to a proud welcome, the are reported to have been sent to one of the reclusive nation’s most notorious gulags.
North Korean defector Kang Chol-Hwan claims he met some of the team while they were being held in Yodok prison, or Camp 15, usually reserved for political prisoners.
In his tell-all book The Aquariums of Pyongyang, he asserts that footballer Pak Seung-Zin became infamous for his ability to endure torture.
Another inmate, dubbed “The Cockroach” after gobbling any insects he could find to fight off hunger pains, would often be thrown into a solitary chamber known as the “Sweatbox”.
While they are the best known case of the country’s harsh attitude towards “failure”, they are far from the only ones.
FIFA was forced to investigate claims another North Korean football team were “punished” after being thrashed 7-0 by Portugal at the 2010 World Cup.
Similar treatment awaited Olympic team who travelled to Rio 2016 and came back with just two gold medals.
“Those who won medals will be rewarded with better housing allocations, better rations… and maybe other gifts from the regime,” North Korea expert Toshimitsu Shigemura told the Telegraph.
He said athletes who “disappointed” the leader would likely be punished with a downgrade in housing, reduced rations and even “being sent to the coal mines”.
The damned may have included weightlifter Hyo Sim-Choe, a gold medal favourite who walked away with a mere silver.
Defector Kim Hyeong-Soo, who fled the country in 2009, said both athletes and coaches were punished to months of hard labour if they did not live up to expectations.
Kim Il-Sung established a series of secret prison camps in the 1950s to weed out his political enemies, a according to a UN report.
Inmates unfortunate enough to find themselves in these cruel camps, inspired by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet gulags, suffered years of unthinkable torture.
In fact the UN claims the majority of prisoners “have no prospect of ever being released” and escape is “virtually impossible”.
Stories from the few who have been released paint an apocalyptic picture of arbitrary punishments and summary executions, apparently conducted in front of inmates.
Former detainee Shin Dong-Hyuk’s says guards chopped off his middle finger because he dropped a sewing machine in Camp 14.
While in Camp 22, a guard was “rewarded” for bludgeoning a prisoner to death with a blowtorch because “he was not working fast enough”.
Macabre illustrations drawn by former inmates, and released by the United Nations, are the only real insight we have into the cruelty of these camps.
One shows prisoners being subjected to gruelling stress positions for hours on end while another shows an inmate locked in tiny cage, trying to capture a rat so he could eat something.
Prisoner Kenneth Bae was thrown into one of North Korea’s gulags after being accused of plotting to “destroy the regime”.
His 735 day stint saw him interrogated, starved and carrying out six to ten hours of hard labour a day.
With the Winter Olympics finishing next weekend and the tubby tyrants’ arch enemies the US and South Korea holding fifth and ninth place respectively athletes may be greeted with a similar fate.
The importance placed on the regime’s global esteem was seen last week when a Kim Jong-Un impersonator was dragged away for dancing in front of regime cheerleaders.
Just weeks ahead of the opening ceremony, the two Koreas agreed to field a combined team for the Games.