Disclaimer: This article is not going to be a biography of Kim Gwang Suk. It is intended as a precursor to a future profile of the famed North Korean gymnast. The purpose of this article is to discuss only the very beginning and the very end of her career while skipping the performances in 1991 and 1992 that made Kim Gwang Suk a legend. This article is going to feature a lot of commentary on the political makeup of North Korea, and very little direct gymnastics analysis. So if you are simply a women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG) fan who is uninterested in geopolitical commentary, this article may not be for you.
The origins of the this story start with a comparison between Korea and Germany. When Germany was divided between West and East Germany, it was the NATO-aligned West Germany which inherited the most resource rich and industrial portion of the country. In Korea, the opposite had occurred. It was communist-controlled North Korea that inherited the bulk of the country’s industrial infrastructure and natural resources.
When West Germany was awarded the 1972 Olympics, it was a tough blow for the East German government, but it wasn’t a crushing blow. East Germany could not be blamed for its shortcomings relative to West Germany when the West Germans had been dealt a better hand. When South Korea was awarded the Olympics in 1988, it was a crippling defeat for North Korea.
The 1988 Olympics symbolized that the international consensus saw South Korea as the superior country over North Korea. Even worse, it had occurred under circumstances where the only way it was possible for South Korea to overtake North Korea, is if North Korea’s system of government was inferior to that of the West. If the fall of the Berlin Wall proved the United States had prevailed over the Soviet Union, the 1988 Olympics had established that South Korea had prevailed over North Korea.
This was a dilemma the North Koreans that had to rectify.
The North Koreans first attempted an Olympic boycott, but this was 1988. Four years earlier in 1984 the bulk of the communist world had boycotted the Olympics when they were being held in the United States. Not only had there been a boycott in 1984, there had been one in 1980 and even one in 1976 that was the second largest in Olympic history. The entire Olympic movement had become fatigued to the concept of boycotts as it was becoming apparent they simply didn’t work. This was more true than anywhere else for North Korea’s Eastern Bloc allies who had just boycotted the previous Olympics and weren’t going to do it for the second time in a row.
In the end, the 1984 Olympic boycott was the savior of the 1988 Olympics. If there was going to be a boycott, the North Koreans would be doing so alone. Unable to undermine the Olympics via a boycott, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il tried to endear himself to the IOC. And this is what is critical to understanding the rise of Kim Gwang Suk. North Korea spent much of the 1980s trying to convince the IOC to let them co-host the 1988 Olympics alongside their Southern neighbors.
Even after the IOC said no, North Korea pressed ahead with its preparations for “hosting” the Olympic Games. This included building the largest stadium the world had ever seen, and remains so to this day. As North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il saw it, if he could build a series of Olympic facilities so grand, he could win over the IOC. They would be so impressed that they would have no choice but to extend co-hosting rights to North Korea.
North Korea wasn’t just building sports stadiums all over the country, they were investing in their athletes as well. Olympic sports all across the board were granted additional funding to ensure the 1988 Olympics would produce the greatest North Korean medal haul to date.
It is no coincidence that one of the most iconic WAGs in North Korean history competed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kim Gwang Suk was a direct byproduct of an era where North Korean athletes were set up to have the best possible success. But for North Korean athletes, the 1988 Olympics was simultaneously a boon and a setback for them. The IOC never came calling and the dream of North Korea co-hosting the Olympics were Kim Jong-il’s delusions of grandeur. In spite of all their previous investments, North Korea’s great 1988 sports buildup ended in an Olympic boycott.
In one final move of desperation, the North Koreans turned to terrorism in an attempt to derail the 1988 Olympics. Kim Jong-il ordered the bombing of a passenger airliner resulting in the deaths of 115 civilians. All in an attempt to scare away people who were planning to travel to South Korea for the Olympic Games. The 1988 Olympics, the IOC and Kim Jong-il ended up being one of the most extreme examples in human history of carrot and the stick policy.
The 1988 Olympics are one element to Kim Gwang Suk’s career that often gets overlooked. Kim Gwang Suk attended the 1989 World Championships and finished 14th in the All-Around. With these results in mind, it would have been enticing for North Korea to send her to the Olympics just one year earlier. It would have been blatant to outside observers that this was an age falsification scandal, but as the history of North Korean WAG suggests, optics rarely discourage North Korean officials who want to win at all costs.
Fast forward to the 1992 Olympics and while Kim Gwang Suk famously finished 4th on the uneven bars, her North Korean teammates held their own in other Olympic sports. At the 1992 Olympics North Korea finished 16th in the medal count. It was a staggering level success for what was one of the poorest countries in the world in a sporting event that is typically dominated by wealthy nations. It is reflective of how much athletic talent the country had that lost out on 1988, but also how effective the North Korean government had been in building up its Olympic sports during the 1980s.
But then came the fall.
I started this article by talking about the division of the Korean peninsula where it was the North which inherited most of Korea’s industry and natural resources. South Korea inherited the agricultural portion of the country. Most countries have a population base that evolved naturally based on how much food the landmass can produce, North Korea didn’t. For the North Koreans, they were an artificially created nation that had its food source syphoned away and cut-off.
Whereas South Korea could simply build factories to replace the industrial wealth their Northern neighbors took from them. North Korea simply couldn’t build farms to make up for the agricultural wealth the South took from them. North Korea is to the North, which brings colder temperatures that are less suitable for farming. It is also far more mountainous than its Southern counterpart, further limiting its potential for agriculture.
During the Cold War this was less of a problem for North Korea. They were allied with the Soviet Union, a country with a strong agricultural tradition that recognized the situation on the Korean peninsula and gave food aid to their communist ally. But by 1992 the Soviet Union was gone, and along with it the food imports that were vital to North Korea’s existence. Not long after the 1992 Olympics North Korea descended into a famine that lasted until 1997. During the 1990s North Korean WAG experienced a “dark era” which correlated with this tragedy. It was around this time that Kim Gwang Suk suddenly disappeared from the sport, she wouldn’t resurface until 15 years later.
Why this happened remains a secret only known to the North Koreans. Perhaps the famine forced the North Korean WAG program to limit itself during the 1990s. In WAG the ages skew incredibly young making it a sport that is more vulnerable to economic instability than other Olympic sports including men’s gymnastics. Or perhaps the national government was so morally bankrupt that they would have continued to heavily invest in WAG even while the country starved.
Perhaps the real reason for North Korea’s downfall in WAG was the age falsification scandal. Communist nations tend to pride themselves on how they are being perceived internationally. The age falsification scandal was certainly embarrassing for them and perhaps North Korean officials didn’t want to hear the name “Kim Gwang Suk” or contend for WAG medals for the time being. That would explain why North Korea’s WAG program seemed to take such a hard hit whereas other Olympic sports weren’t as significantly impacted, including men’s gymnastics.
Note: One of the awful trends in communist sports is athletes taking the blame and being used as scapegoats to deflect attention away from the wrongdoing of the government officials tasked with running these programs. Hong Su Jong and Hong Un Jong emerged as medal contenders prior to the 2008 Olympics. This is the likely reason North Korea suddenly began promoting its previous WAG history and resurfaced the story of Kim Gwang Suk.
Or maybe Kim Gwang Suk’s career had reached its natural conclusion and the correct answer was as simple as that. Kim Gwang Suk had already competed for a full Olympic quad which meant by the time of her sudden departure, she hadn’t exactly had a short career. Even more so when it is often forgotten just how much of a 1980s gymnast she really was, and how close Kim Gwang Suk might have been to an appearance at the 1988 Olympics. I use words like “maybe” and “perhaps” because that’s all there is to say about a country that is so secretive and provides hardly any information at all.
This is the downfall of Kim Gwang Suk that superseded her unlikely rise. Kim Gwang Suk was a fascinating gymnast who emerged in an era of chaos. Her rapid rise up the ranks had been made possible due to an era where North Korea was in the middle of an unprecedented spending splurge as it sought Olympic glory. Only to disappear under mysterious circumstances that were as equally unprecedented. The downfall of both Kim Gwang Suk and her WAG program being so sudden, it barely makes sense at all. And we are left to ponder if the only way a WAG program could derail itself so fast was because of a famine, an embarrassing age falsification scandal, or both.