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29th-Aug-2018

Cars, houses, heroes: North Koreans win hearts at Asian Games

By Agency


North Korea's athletes are not only scooping record numbers of medals at the Asian Games, they are winning hearts with an unprecedented charm offensive and will go home as heroes -- rewarded with new cars and houses.
At the weightlifting competition which concluded Monday with an eighth gold -- smashing North Korea's previous best of four in 2014 -- the team's attitude has been the polar opposite from Incheon four years ago.
There, every medallist trotted out a well-worn script of thanking leader Kim Jong Un for his inspiration to reporters before being whisked away.
But over eight days at the Jakarta International Expo their athletes have gone off-piste to talk frankly about their nerves, fears, emotions and life back home while mingling freely with spectators and reporters.
They even were joined by the South Korean weightlifting team to celebrate the end of the competition with an unprecedented joint team photo.
"I think we have shown the world that the people of Korea are the greatest as one," +75kg winner Kim Kuk Hyang told AFP after posing with her South Korean counterparts, an astonishing statement from a North Korean given that the two countries have technically remained at war for the past 65 years.
Then she was off to grab tiny 4ft 7in (140cm) Ri Song Gum, the 48kg class gold medallist, and carry her aloft around the stage with the pair laughing, joking and punching the air.
Hardly a single request for a selfie by a fan or Games volunteer has been turned down -- most have been accommodated with huge smiles. At the 2014 Asian Games none was entertained.
The shackles are off, athletes are revelling and happy to reveal their personal stories for the first time.
Om Yun Chol even thanked South Koreans for helping him to win 56kg men's gold.
"The passionate support from the South Korean cheerleading squad is my source of great strength," he said while posing for pictures.
Was this really the same man who four years earlier had thanked leader Kim for teaching him how to "crack a rock with an egg"?