The National Today

Why North Korea's Olympic ambition has little to do with podium glory

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

A deeper dive into the day's most notable stories

North Korea agreed Tuesday to take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Kim Jong Un's regime says it will send two Canadian-trained skaters, along with a 'cheering squad,' artistic performers, reporters and dignitaries. (KCNA/Reuters)

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North Korea's Olympic dreams

It promises to be at least a modest show of unity.

One month from today, the athletes of North and South Korea will march together into the opening ceremony at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon, shakes hands with South Korean counterpart Cho Myoung-gyon, right, after their meeting Tuesday at the truce village of Panmunjom in the demilitarised zone separating the two nations. (Reuters)
The last-minute decision by the Hermit Kingdom to participate in a Games that it had long threatened to boycott will make for a lopsided spectacle: Just two athletes from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea — pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim-Ju Sik — have qualified for the competition. South Korea, the hosts, are fielding a team of 87 across six sports, including curling, luge, biathlon and men's and women's hockey.

(Kim Jong Un's regime is promising to fill out its contingent with a 'cheering squad,' artistic performers, reporters and dignitaries. And their Montreal-trained skaters will bring a touch of Canada with them: a free-skate to the strains of Ginette Reno's Je ne suis qu'une chanson.)

North Korea has a troubled history with the Olympics. It boycotted the '84 Games in Los Angeles, and has had spotty participation at the Winter Games, making just seven of the past 12, the last being Vancouver 2010.

South Korean army soldiers watch North Korea's delegation at the demarcation line in Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on Tuesday. (Yonhap via Associated Press)
In the run-up to the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, Kim's grandfather Kim Il-sung entered into discussions with the South about sending a team, demanded that half the events be held in the North, and asked for his own opening and closing ceremonies.

But ultimately, he staged another boycott, supported by Cuba, Nicaragua, Madagascar and Ethiopia.

Declassified CIA documents illustrate how worried the West was about the elder Kim's potential to disrupt the festivities. "To deal with its own diplomatic failures, [the North] is portraying South Korea as too dangerous a site for the competition and encouraging South Korean dissidents to demonstrate to make that point," reads one warning.

South Korea will field a team of 87 athletes across six sports for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)
The concerns were well-founded. In November 1987, Korean Airlines Flight 858 from Baghdad to Seoul blew up in mid air, killing all 115 people aboard.

Two North Korean agents who had disembarked at a stopover in Abu Dhabi were arrested in Bahrain. The man killed himself with a cyanide-laced cigarette, but his female accomplice, Kim Hyun-hui, confessed to placing a bomb in the overhead bins — under orders from her government to "strike a severe blow for the revolution."

The reasons behind Kim Jong Un's sudden change of heart over Pyeongchang 2018 remain a mystery. But it is unlikely to be about Olympic glory. The North has won just two Winter medals since 1964, the last coming in women's short-track speed skating at Albertville in 1992.

A snow sculpture in the shape of the Olympic rings draws tourists in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Competitions start in the host city of the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in February. (Lee Jin-man/Associated Press)
South Korea, on the other hand, won eight medals in Sochi, 14 in Vancouver, and is poised for more success at home.

Let's just hope that the Opening Ceremonies go better than Seoul 1988, where organizers released a flock of "peace doves," only to see them perch on the edge of the Olympic cauldron and get barbecued on live TV in front of a worldwide audience.

A final stand in Syria

The war against ISIS is over, but Syria's civil war continues to rage.

Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have unleashed what promise to be theirfinal offensives on rebel strongholds near Damascus and along the Turkish border.

People work to free a man trapped by debris after an airstrike in the eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, on Tuesday. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)
Heavy bombing and shelling in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital, have killed at least 130 people over the past 11 days, according the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

An offensive in Idlib — the only province to fall under full rebel control during the almost seven-year conflict — has forced at least 70,000 civilians to flee their homes.

Humanitarian groups are accusing the Syrian government of deliberately targeting hospitals in the northern province, noting that 10 have been hit over the past 10 days. And the United Nations is warning that the steady flow of refugees seeking safety in Turkey could turn into a flood.

A man carries a wounded child after an airstrike in eastern Damascus on Tuesday. (Bassam Khabieh/Reuters)
Meanwhile, Russia is busy solidifying its post-war position after helping Assad to victory with its fighter jets.  

Rebels in Ghouta say they have been holding face-to-face talks with Russian soldiers for several months now, seeking a ceasefire; reports echoed by other armed resistance factions around the country.

This all but assures that an eventual peace will be brokered by the Kremlin, setting the stage for a permanent Russian military presence in the region.

Climate change altering more than weather

A new study of sea turtles along Australia's Great Barrier Reef has found a disturbing consequence of global warming — rising temperatures are turning almost all their hatchlings female.

Sea turtles around the world are facing pressure from threats such as climate change and pollution. (John Dickinson/CBC)
The juvenile and sub-adult populations of green sea turtles that live along the northern parts of the reef are now 99 per cent female, says a paper published yesterday in the journal Current Biology.

The normal ratio is 2-to-1, females to male.

The massive turtles, which can grow to more than 250 kilograms, are among a number of reptile species that see their sex determined by the temperatures they are exposed to while in the embryo stage.

In this case, it's the sand that covers the nests. When its temperature rises above 29.3 C the turtles develop as girls. The beaches have consistently hit that mark since 1990, resulting in the lopsided gender imbalance.

When sea turtles are born on beaches, they instinctively know to move towards the ocean. (AFP/Getty Images)
Researchers have been worried about this phenomenon for a while, warning that rising global temperatures risk skewing populations of alligators, amphibians and fish.

In the case of some other species of turtles, shade canopies have been erected over nesting beaches to keep the sand cooler and the gender ratios closer to normal.

Animal genders are also being disrupted by a number of other human-related factors:

A polar bear near Churchill, Man. Research shows PCB contamination is affecting bears in the High Arctic. (Alex Beatty/Churchill Northern Studies Centre)
For sea turtles, there's been even more bad news when it comes to the weather lately. On this side of the globe, the problem has been the cold.

The polar vortex that sent temperatures plummeting across North America over the past two weeks saw Florida beaches littered with "cold stunned" green sea turtles. Water temperatures below 10 C effectively put them into suspended animation. Several hundred were taken into wildlife refuge centres for a slow thaw.

Quote of the moment

"Loblaw reserves the right to limit the total number of cards that will be issued under the Loblaw Card Program."

- The fine print on Loblaw's $25 gift card offer — a "goodwill" gesture after the grocer and its affiliated baker admitted to fixing the price of bread for 14 years. An online campaign is encouraging Canadians to sign up and donate the cards to local food banks.

What The National is reading

  • $500M recouped worldwide from 'Panama Papers' tax cheats – none of it in Canada. (CBC)
  • Self-driving cars may become the perfect delivery vehicles for criminals. (Miami Herald)
  • Indonesian police probe 'orders' for child pornography from Canada, Russia. (CBC)
  • Japanese astronaut grows 9 cm after just three weeks in orbit. (BBC)
  • Alan Bleviss, legendary Canadian voice of movie trailers and commercials, dies at 76. (National Post)
  • Radiohead is suing Lana Del Rey over a song that The Hollies accused them of stealing. (Pitchfork)
  • Australian hawks intentionally spread fire to flush out their prey. (The Register)

Today in history

Jan. 9, 1967: Centennial train takes Canadian history on tour.

"Pretty good," "swell," and "very nice indeed," capture the overflowing national pride as residents of Victoria, B.C., tour Canada's Confederation Train. But the highlight was surely the re-creation of an Irish plague ship.

Packed with displays tracing the history of Canada, a cross-country train gets good reviews at its first stop in Victoria. 3:23

About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.