North Korea and the Berlin Olympics

by Peter O’Brien
Senior Fellow 

In his wonderful “Boys in the Boat,” D. J. Brown tells the story of the crew team from the University of Washington who, in 1936, journeyed to Berlin and won the gold medal for the USA. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.

But there are several facets to the tale; one, of note today, is how Hitler used the Olympics to showcase his new Germany. Prior to the Berlin Olympics the Olympic games were still big deals, but it was Hitler who turned them into a spectacle, an event far bigger than simply athletes getting together to compete at the highest level. After Hitler, it became a way to showcase a city and a nation, a way to make grand political statements, all couched in terms of brotherhood and unity and peace. And it’s worth noting that the particular individual who orchestrated this production for Hitler was a charming and beautiful woman, Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl was an actor and dancer who became one of pre-war Germany’s great directors and producers. While she denied to her death having knowledge of the holocaust, she was clearly drawn to Hitler, had a close working relationship with Hitler’s master of propaganda – Dr. Goebbels, and remained part of Hitler’s inner social circle throughout the war. And she certainly had knowledge of the movement of Jewish Germans out of Berlin prior to the game, the better to display “Aryan purity.”

A key part of all this was her ability to craft an image of the new Aryan race for the world to see, with the stage she created for the Olympics. Riefenstahl was the creator of the bigger than life spectacles that have been mirrored in every subsequent Olympic game.

She was a very smart, beautiful, charming woman, in league with an evil regime…

And we are seeing the same thing today.

North Korea’s maximum dictator, Kim Jong Un – seemingly taking a cue from Goebbels and Hitler – sent his sister, Kim Yo Jong, to represent him at the Olympics in Pyeongchang, ROK. She’s the first member of the Kim family to enter South Korea since 1950. And everyone is fawning all over her. Everyone first notes that she’s part of the nasty regime, but then they switch over to nearly breathless comments about her presence, noting that this puts a young, female face on North Korean leadership.

Yeah, sure.

Let’s review. North Korea is the most repressive regime on the planet. Really, no one else comes close. Tehran and the mad mullahs? That’s Club Med compared to North Korea. In the late 90s North Korea faced a famine that lasted several years; at least 5% of the population died. Did they change policies? No. In the last 10 years the economy of North Korea has been essentially flat, with per capita income hovering near $1,000. Yet they – Kim Jong Un and his devoted sister – have managed to invest several billion in the development of nuclear weapons and missiles to carry them. In excess of 1/3rd of the economy is devoted to the military. But watching a movie from outside the country is a felony. Female face of the future regime? Rape is a tool of control for this regime. Voice of the future? Communicating with the west can be punished with death. Kim has reportedly executed more than 300 people since coming to power in 2011, many members of the inner circle who were simply getting too popular. And full-scale repression of the populace continues. It’s been said that the entire country is a gulag. That may be as accurate a description as any.

What’s amazing about this whole mess, to include insane commentary that Vice President Pence made a major foreign policy gaffe by not engaging with Ms Kim, is that despite the amount of information we have on what is really going on in North Korea, when a charming face steps in front of us, many seem quite willing to forget all that “nasty stuff” and believe the tale we are being told.

The Olympics are a great sports venue. But they’ve been used for more than 80 years by dictators and their charming assistants to deceive and mislead, and in this particular case, in an attempt to weaken the ties between the US and the Republic of Korea.

Enjoy the games. But don’t be misled by this charming, latter day Salome.