The reality of totalitarianism in Pyongyang, North KoreaFelix Peckham

Last week in Varsity, Felix Peckham called for a British boycott of the current Winter Olympics in protest against North Korea’s inclusion in the games. He is right to highlight the appalling human rights abuses – and those are just the ones we know about – the determination to acquire a significant nuclear arsenal, and the totalitarianism that Kim Jong-Un’s regime demonstrates with apparent relish. The first of these alone should be enough, on principle, to exclude a country from participation in an international sporting event as prestigious as the Winter Olympics.

“So much of the legitimation of the North Korean regime is based on the idea that the country is surrounded by a hostile coalition determined to destroy it”

Indeed, such an action would not be without precedent; South Africa was excluded from all Olympic Games between 1964 and 1992 in condemnation of apartheid. However, in the current case of North Korea, acting on principle serves only to protect our own consciences and not to achieve any progress.

North Korea is accustomed to being isolated. International sanctions have increasingly separated the country from the rest of the world since its nuclear programme began in earnest over fifteen years ago. Even before then, self-sufficiency and independence were ingrained in the country’s creed; in the aftermath of the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung initiated the philosophy of ‘Juche’ that stresses the need for self-reliance and to this day its explanation is one of the first tabs on the official North Korean website. Exclusion from the Winter Olympics would, therefore, be a continuation of nearly seventy years of isolation.

School children in Pyongyang, dubbed a 'show city'Felix Peckham

There is no sign that this isolation has weakened the regime: its nuclear programme has been pursued to the point where its capacities pose a real threat; the handover to Kim Jong-Un on the death of his father was smooth, and the new leader has viciously consolidated his power in a series of purges. Surely, seventy years of failure validates a change of policy?

However, the failure of ‘Plan A’ is not the only reason why North Korea should be included in the games. Indeed, its participation can undermine the dictatorship. So much of the legitimation of the regime is based on the idea that the country is surrounded by a hostile coalition determined to destroy it. This idea underpins its nuclear programme, the prevalence of ‘Juche’, the mass commitment of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ to concentration camps. Is not the best form of rebuttal inclusion in what Peckham terms ‘the vitality and the diversity of the community of nations’?


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Assimilation, however superficial and temporary, among those very nations that supposedly threaten the ‘freedom’ of the North Korean people is a chip in the justification for their continued oppression. As Peckham notes, such inclusion inherently recognises the validity of the DPRK’s claims to sovereignty. This should not be seen as a drawback to accepting North Korea’s presence; yes, it is what the regime wants, but it also contradicts that regime’s own justification for its existence.

Recognising North Korea, with all its abuses, is a bitter pill to swallow, but doing so is necessary to counter the foundation stones on which the Kim dynasty have built their land of deprivation, oppression and misery. It would be wildly optimistic to expect the emancipation of the North Korean people after a few pictures of athletes waving flags, but this is an opportunity to challenge the rhetoric of a totalitarian regime that our principles should not stop us from seizing

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