North and South Korean gymnasts pose for a selfie

There’s already all sorts of bad behavior by athletes at the Olympics, with the Lebanese team not allowing the Israeli athletes on the bus, a report that a Saudi judo athlete (judist?) forfeited his match rather than face an Israeli athlete (the Saudis say it was an injury), literal finger-wagging by American swimmers towards Russian swimmers accused of illegal drug usage, and now an Australian swimmer calling his Chinese opponent a “drug cheat.” It’s the Olympics, Jake: keep your bad behavior and moralism to yourself.

But here’s a moment that at least brings a frisson of pleasure: a North Korean and South Korean gymnast posing for a selfie! Now that’s something completely unexpected.

From The Guardian we see Lee Eun-ju of South Korea (right, age 17) and Hong Un-jong of North Korea (left, age 27) taking a selfie while practicing before the competition began. Un-jong was the first medal-winner in women’s gymnastics from North Korea, nabbing a gold in the vault in the 2008 Beijing games. (Although old for a gymnast, she has a new vault that could earn her a second gold.) Eun-ju is considerably younger, and I can imagine that the North Korean is a bit of a hero to her.


The North Koreans are unarguably the most oppressed people on the planet, starved and ordered about by their odious leaders, and taught from birth to hate South Koreans, Americans, and almost everybody else. They have no access to internet, and listening to international radio is a serious crime. No other nation on Earth is so deliberately isolated from the rest of the world.

There’s nothing we can do to help them save push for sanctions or rekindle the war (which is technically still ongoing); the latter would kill many in both North and South. If only there were a way. . .

But the picture shows a spirit of the young that transcends this division. Sadly, the DPRK is dedicated to snuffing out that spirit, and perhaps Un-jong might even be sanctioned after returning to the North. But if anything exemplifies what the Olympics are supposed to be, it’s this photo.


  1. Glandu
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    I’m sad to agree with you : htere is not much civilized we can do to solve that problem.

  2. Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Dave
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    “The North Koreans are unarguably the most oppressed people on the planet,”

    If only it were “unarguable”. Sadly, many on the left will tell you in all sincerity that it’s the “Palestinians” who are the true holders of that title, while North Koreans live in a socialist paradise cruelly maligned by the evil western media.

    • Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      I’d ask those people to choose which country they’d rather live in. It’s unarguable in the same way that evolution is unarguable: there are those who argue, but they’re just wrong.

      • Dave
        Posted August 9, 2016 at 9:09 am | Permalink

        I agree that the two halves of Korea offer the starkest possible comparison of the respective merits of multi-party democracy and free-market capitalism versus Stalinist totalitarianism. The same country, same land area/resources, same people and culture, same history pre-1950 – it’s practically a scientific experiment. Despite that, many on the left will still go all misty-eyed at the sight of those disciplined ranks of happy workers singing their hymns of praise to the Dear Leader. It’s the same form of mental derangement as those who argue that chattel status and lifelong confinement in a burka are actually “liberating” for women in muslim countries.

        • Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

          Actually, I’ve never known an American leftist to extol North Korea as a paradigm of anything but totalitarian misery. Maybe I’ve missed something, and would be glad to be enlightened.

          But any such Leftists aren’t even wrong; they’re barking mad.

          • Dave
            Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

            American leftists are not the only variety. Here in the UK there are far-left sects which openly declare their “solidarity” with “People’s Korea” and dismiss all reports of the miserable conditions endured by its wretched inhabitants as merely imperialist propaganda.

            Even outside the lunatic fringe, the so-called moderate left seem happy to ignore the horrors of North Korea, while endlessly obsessing about the supposed crimes of Israel.

            • Posted August 9, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

              Ah, thanks for the information. But there are too many reports from North Korea to dismiss.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted August 9, 2016 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

              I didn’t have any problems with trying to get oil exploration going in DPRK. Economically, they need something better than their fairly poor coal reserves if the country is going to have any development at all, and they’re not going to get any significant nuclear power system going this.
              Basin analytically … there are targets. Bloody politicians keep on getting in the way though. It’s almost as if they don’t want to have a constructive attempt at improving the economy of the country, and instead want to have a whipping boy to hand. Call me a cynic if you want, but I wouldn’t put it beyond many politicians to conveniently keep a “small country of which we know nothing” as a convenient target.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

              That sounds like a strawman to me. Where are these ‘many’ on the left who adore North Korea?


    • Posted August 9, 2016 at 9:54 am | Permalink

      + 1

  4. Monika
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    Yeah, totalitarian systems hate it when people discover what they have in common. Here in Germany we had a similar situation with GDR vs FRG. The GDR officials tried everything to keep the two teams apart. Didn’t really work, the shared language and the shared sport proved to be stronger than artificial barriers.

  5. zl84841g
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    The Japanese for a judo practitioner is transliterated as “judoka.” A judo coach I know often said “judo player” when talking about judoka.

    I hope the young North Korean is not not sanctioned.

  6. darrelle
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    That is a beautiful thing. I sometimes think we should let kids run things.

  7. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    This was genuinely moving. Maybe telling that the Southerner seems to have initiated it and flashed the peace sign – I wonder if the North Korean gymnast’s actions will be seen in such a positive light back home(or if they’ll even report it.).

    There’s a couple of terrifying Hitch essays on North Korea in his Arguably collection, and two things linger long after you finish reading them: first is the fact that when seen from orbit and at night the dazzling profusion of bright lights which sprawl over the south simply stop dead at the border, and everything to the north of the ‘demilitarised’ zone is pitch black.
    Second is the startling fact that on average North Koreans are six inches shorter than South Koreans. You won’t find a more graphic signifier of the difference between two societies than that.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      That sounds like way too much of a difference to be down solely to nutrition, though I’m no expert. Could there be ethnic differences too?


      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted August 10, 2016 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        It did always strike me as ever-so-slightly dubious, but it’s such a startling piece of trivia I’ve never googled it. A bit of confirmation bias on my part in favour of juicy statistics perhaps.

  8. Vaal
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Before I even read the text I didn’t have to wonder which of the gynmasts was South or North Korean. I figured the South Korean was the one who owned the phone, taking the selfie.

    • v
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:21 am | Permalink


      • Ken Phelps
        Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        A Freudian split?

        • nurnord
          Posted August 10, 2016 at 4:45 am | Permalink

          Congrats to your brother, 21 gold !

    • TJR
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      That was my first thought. Did the North Korean even know that it was a phone/camera? Do Samsung do any trade over the border?

      • Michael Watts
        Posted August 9, 2016 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        Actually NK has their own phones, operating system and network.

  9. Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    I too worry about the NK athlete.

  10. Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    the Olympics seem to never have been the ideal that is claimed. At least not since 1936. PBS has a very interesting hour long piece called “The Nazi Olympics – Berlin 1936” that shows just how corrupt they were and from what I’ve seen, still are.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

      Probably the same programme was on one of the UK channels a couple of weeks ago – I saw part of it in passing and took it as warning that the Olympics were coming around again.
      Bloody sports have taken over one of the few sports-free channels. fortunately, I’ve stocked up on movies on the recorder deliberately to get through the dark times.

  11. barn owl
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Gymnast Eun-ju is making the “peace sign” for her selfie – when I was in Japan last fall, almost every young person we saw taking selfies made this sign. Young women in particular would hold their fingers against the side of their face while making the peace sign. My friends, who regularly travel in several other Asian countries, said they’ve often seen young selfie-takers making the peace sign for their photos. Does anyone know whether this is just A Thing That’s Popular Right Now, or if it has some other significance? Have others seen it used outside of Asian countries? (I haven’t traveled much outside of the US during the Selfie Era).

    • darrelle
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      This website explains the phenomenon.

      To summarize, the peace sign first became a thing in the Japanese hippie culture in the 60s, inspired by the US hippie culture. Sometime in the 70s it started to become a thing in mainstream society. It has by now become ubiquitous in photos, not just selfies, and apparently has no specific meaning and is said to be the equivalent of “saying cheese,” as is so common in US culture.

      • barn owl
        Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Thanks! Like the other tourists in the article, after a couple of days in Japan, we were posing with the peace sign in our photos too (and still use it, when we get together in the US and take photos – it’s kind of a joke and reminiscence of our trip now).

        It’s like a virus, Jim … it breeds very rapidly

        • darrelle
          Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

          🙂 A good virus!

          I experienced the same thing when I visited Japan about 14 years ago. An explanation I got then from a Japanese friend, a woman, was something like,”It doesn’t really mean anything, it’s just fun.” Loved just about everything about that visit. Except “sweet” beans in desert type applications. I’ll pass on that. Oh, and my wife got sick.

          There was this tea and cream drink that I can’t remember the name of, it was in all the vending machines that were everywhere. I became addicted to the stuff. Couldn’t hardly pass a machine up without getting one.

  12. John Conoboy
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    My favorite Olympic moment so far was the two American synchronized divers thanking g*d and Jesus for their success. They won a silver medal having been beaten by two, likely theist or maybe buddhist, Chinese divers.

    • barn owl
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I saw that last night, and thought it was … bizarre, to say the least. It was so over the top that it seemed almost insincere.

    • John Conoboy
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      That should be atheist, not theist.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

        What a difference a ‘a’ makes…


    • darrelle
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Glad I missed that. I was already feeling a little queasy last night.

  13. Heather Hastie
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    In 1981 I attended an international youth conference. One of the things I still remember is a very moving speech by a South Korean delegate about how their country was split. The thing he focused on was all the families that were split up, never to see one another or speak to one another again. 35 years later nothing has changed except there are less people who remember family members in the other country.

    On the issue of drug cheats, I don’t consider athletes talking about this moralizing. Though I think they should just get on and compete, I understand their frustration. The situation has been caused imo by the cowardice of the IOC in not banning the entire Russian team and also being soft on other drugs cheats. I applaud the paralympic IOC chief on having the courage to ban Russia from the paralympics.

  14. kansaskitty
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I think American swimmer Lilly King was justified in speaking out against the Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova, who got caught using PED’s twice, and was banned from participating, then allowed to swim anyway at the last minute. Efimova is the one that started the finger waving when she was booed by the crowd. It cheapens the spirit of the Olympics to ban PED’s then allow certain athletes to compete regardless. Like Lilly said, she worked hard to get there and was clean. That is what the Olympics is about, hard work and effort, not cheating.

  15. Tim Petersime
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 5:07 pm | Permalink


  16. Michael Ball
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if anyone clarified it above, but its Judoka not Judist

    • gscott
      Posted August 9, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

      Got it. Now would you be so kind as to direct me to the Nudoka Beach in Rio?

  17. transientreporter
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

    Not to quibble, but “Hong” and “Lee” are the surnames (family names) – e.g. Son Heungmin is a footballer who plays for Tottenham. “Son” is his family name, “Heungmin” is his given name.

  18. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 9, 2016 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    “It’s the Olympics, Jake: keep your bad behavior and moralism to yourself.”

    Thank you, PCC. My reaction entirely. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s sanctimonious moralising bastards, many of whom I suspect just haven’t been caught out yet.


  19. Susan Davies
    Posted August 10, 2016 at 12:03 am | Permalink

    I support the swimmer who “has no time for drug cheats”. The cheater shouldn’t even be there. Anyone who cheats should be banned for life. It’s not just those who come second, third and fourth who are cheated of their rightful medals. The cheater got onto the team fraudulently, that stopped another non-cheating person from getting on the team. That person might have been a record-breaker but instead might NEVER have been able to demonstrate their talent. The knock-on effect is unknowable. If you are threatened with a life ban, you might think twice about cheating.

  20. Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:10 am | Permalink

    I love the way that the Olympics brings countries together, but I’m sure that Kim Jong Un doesn’t! I love how they just didn’t care about the fact that they probably knew that it was extremely controversial, but did it anyway, almost giving the ‘Supreme Leader’ the middle finger!

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