South Korea

'Innocent' errors can prove deadly for North Koreans

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am


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London has long been obsessed with flags and its emblem hangers have had much practice over the centuries displaying pennants, ensigns, standards and streamers for all manner of special occasions.

The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Locog), knew its every step upon international egg shells would be scrutinised. Yet it tripped before the official opening in spectacular style - over the wrong choice of flags.

The first gaffe saw Britain's Foreign Office intervene in a diplomatic row over the flying of Taiwan's flag in central London. It was removed from a display of 206 national colours in the West End amid concern it would upset mainland visitors. It has been replaced with the flag of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, which has been used at the Olympics since the early 1980s after the IOC ruled it could not compete as the Republic of China - as Taiwan is formally known.

Mainland officials had complained about the 'offending' flag and it was promptly removed, upsetting Taiwanese officials and expatriates. A Foreign Office spokesman said Locog was responsible but the row continues.

The other flag blooper happened on Wednesday during the North Korea women's soccer team's opening game in Glasgow and it forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to offer a public apology.

The South Korean flag was mistakenly displayed before the North Koreans' match against Colombia. With expressions of horror as the hated South's flag was broadcast to the world, the North Koreans walked off, delaying the kick-off by over an hour.

It was an honest mistake, pleaded Cameron. 'Every effort will be taken to make sure this won't happen again,' he said.

Was it an innocent error? Or was there, as North Korea coach Sin Ui-gun claimed, a dark political hand at work?

'We shouldn't overinflate this episode. It was unfortunate, it shouldn't have happened and I think we can leave it at that,' Cameron said, insisting the world must act like the British during the next two-and-a-half weeks, and remain calm and carry on competing in the manner of the popular phrase.

But the North Koreans are still fuming, and for good reason. 'Of course the people are angry,' Chang Ung, North Korea's Olympic representative said. He was hoping to be heard by his masters watching with equal horror back in the capital Pyongyang. 'If your athletes suffered something similar, what happens?' Ung challenged us.

Well, Mr Ung, of course there would be some anger, plenty of shame, huge embarrassment and official apologies aplenty. There might be a few involuntary smiles at such tense, grave times. But there would not be a walk off.

Most of us understand human nature and such mistakes occur not just at sporting events but in high-level politics, too. During President Hu Jintao's visit to Vietnam last year, six instead of five stars were on the Chinese flags waved by school children.

But the North Korean team did the right thing. Had they not walked, the repercussions on their return home would be unthinkable.

The two Koreas are sworn enemies but the most crucial difference is that the North demands on pain of death that its citizens show absolute loyalty. Just getting out of North Korea exposes most to danger. Athletes cannot afford to disgrace the nation. Their every word and expression is subjected to scrutiny back home.

I speak from first-hand experience. I have been to the hermit state and during my trip, I was told a harrowing story about a successful North Korean sportswoman turned government official, who for reasons of security, I shall not name, nor shall I reveal her winter discipline.

But the account regularly haunts me. On my official 'business-golf' trip I met one of many official translators. One day, she wore a grey woollen dress and I commented on its smartness.

'It was my mother's,' she said, with pride. 'She had it made for her by a British TV company when she was allowed to visit the UK [eight years before] because she was appearing on TV. My mother was in the government, and a former national sportswoman,' my guide said.

Her mother had died though, she said, and so in remembrance she often wore her prized woollen suit. But there was something tragic in the tale and given the age of my guide, her mother must have passed away prematurely. I delicately asked how her mother was lost.

'It was an accident. Shortly after her return from the West, she took an internal flight. She rested her head on the fold-down table but the person in front suddenly reclined their seat and my mother's neck was broken. She was killed instantly,' my guide said.

The improbability of this tragic accident bounced about in my mind, and I hoped the doubt was not lost on her. Was any of the family with her when this accident happened?

No, she said. Officials stated the cause of death and her mother was then laid to rest. No more questions were asked because in North Korea, you are bred not to ask questions. Did her mother commit a sin on her travels or was it a freak accident? No one knows.

But the point is taken. To a North Korean, seeing your flag replaced by that of your enemy evokes anger. But mostly, it induces fear and you act accordingly. The footballers did not use the bungle to make a political point, as some claimed.

'If those footballers had not made the sort of protest they did, they would have a risk of questions being asked when they got back home and perhaps being taken to a not very nice place,' Korea analyst Aidan Foster-Carter said.

Sin was equally succinct. 'We were angry because our players were introduced as if they were from South Korea, which may affect us greatly as you may know. Winning the game cannot compensate for that thing,' he said.