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An Interview With N. Korean Skaters

Posted January. 29, 2007 04:43,   


“How are you doing?”

On the afternoon of January 27 at the Changbaishan Hotel, located in Changchun, China where skaters from various countries are staying, I approached three North Korean athletes dining in the restaurant in the second floor to say hello. One of them gladly responded.

Being a South Korean journalist, I expected some wariness from them, but I didn’t sense much of that. They were three of the five DPRK representatives in short-track speed skating in Changchun; the one who answered my greeting was Han Sang Gook (29, Chosun University of Physical Education). He introduced himself, saying, “I will take part in the 500m and 5000m relay race. I’m the eldest on our national team.” When I asked, “Who is the youngest, then?” Um Cheol (19), seated next to Han, said, “Me,” blushing. The other one didn’t identify himself, but I found out later that he was Han Cheol Min (21) after referring to my press information guide.

Han Sang Gook was originally a long-track speed skater, but switched to short track in 1993. Um Cheol used to be a wrestler. Although only two male North Korean speed skaters participated in the 2003 Aomori Asian Games, this year, 10 players, five men and five women, comprise the squad.

As I carefully asked, “Do you mind if I take photos of you?” Han Sang Gook brightly answered, “No problem.” He said, “Why are you taking photos in the restaurant? It would be better to do it outside. And could you give us the photos so that we can keep them as souvenirs?”

However, at that point the North Korean coach came over and interrupted the interview, saying, “Interviewing them before the race could make them nervous and affect their performance.”

According to an official from the Korea Sports Council, the North Korean athletes are much friendlier this year to South Koreans than they used to be. However, their opening-up seems to still have clear limitations. For instance, in the case of short-track speed skating, there were discussions of joint training sessions between the coaching staffs of the two countries, but they were called off as soon as the South Korean press reported the news.

Opening ceremonies of the Changchun Winter Asian Games were held at 9:00 p.m. on January 28 in Changchun Wuhuan Gymnasium. The games will last for eight days until the fourth of next month. In the opening ceremony, 20 athletes from each of the two Koreas entered the stadium together under the Korean Unification Flag on which Dokdo was clearly marked.