Super Selfie Helps North Korea Practice ‘Sports Diplomacy’ at Rio Olympics

Lee Goim of South Korea (R) takes a selfie picture with Hong Un Jong of North Korea. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez by Canice Leung August 4 at 10:27 AM
REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

The Latin American Herald Tribune caught some North Korean media reports about the diplomatic adventures of Choe Ryong-hae, viewed as the Number Three man in the Kim regime, practicing “diplomacy” at the Rio Olympics:

Choe, member of the politburo of the Workers’ Party, vice president of the State Affairs Commission and a close aide of leader Kim Jong-un, met Friday Brazilian Interim President Michel Temer, according to the state-owned KCNA agency.

Both agreed to push for friendly ties and cooperation between North Korea and Brazil, according to the official media.

The North Korean senior official also held meetings with Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann and Captain Regent of San Marino, Andrea Ugolini, besides the vice presidents of Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Zambia, KCNA said.

He also met International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, Brazilian Olympic Committee President Carlos Arthur Nuzman and International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer.

The Herald Tribune notes that North Korea has 30 athletes at the Olympics and suggests Pyongyang views the event as an opportunity to “improve its relations with the international community, which have been severely strained since the beginning of this year.”

Potentially helpful in that endeavor is the global media buzz over a selfie taken by South Korean gymnast Lee Eun-ju and North Korea’s Hong Un-jong, a photo — or, more accurately, photos of the two women taking a photo together — the BBC describes as “widely praised as capturing the Olympic spirit.”

The UK Independent hailed the selfie as “an instant icon of unity,” while Canada’s National Post gushed that “Tweet heard ‘round the world” of Lee and Hong’s selfie would bring us “so close to world peace.”

Nevertheless, North Korea is a tough sell to the international diplomatic community, especially in this time of heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, with Japan on alert for Pyongyang to launch more ballistic missiles in its direction.

South Korea’s Korea Times skeptically described Choe’s mission as “an apparent effort to seek diplomatic breakthroughs amid a worsening economy and deepening isolation.”

“Observers say the repressive state is apparently trying to use sports diplomacy to play the role of a normal country in the international arena and break away from its international isolation and pressure in the wake of the regime’s fourth nuclear test in January and a series of missile launches in the following months,” Korea Times editorialized, finding it highly significant that Choe appears to have no meetings in Rio scheduled with officials from either China or Russia.

“Though the North seeks sports diplomacy, it would be difficult to anticipate an immediate impact on its external image or its relations,” North Korean studies professor Kim Yong-hyun of Seoul’s Dongguk University ventured.