How North Korea's Kim Jong Un Fell in Love with the Olympics

Only a handful of celebrities, former leaders and foreign dignitaries can boast a face-to-face meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. But Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, is one of them.

Bach first visited the country in 1998 to discuss the participation between North and South Korea at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when athletes from the two nations marched together under the Korean Unification Flag for the first time. 

In 2018, he headed back to North Korea after another successful partnership between the two Koreas at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. He was granted a 30 minute audience with Kim, after which the two men watched the first half of a football game.

05_10_Bach_Kim International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 31, 2018. KCNA/via Reuters

As President Donald Trump prepares to meet Kim next month in Singapore and the two leaders compete for being recognized as the one responsible for fostering dialogue, Bach sees the events of the past few months as part of his politically-neutral organization’s efforts to engage with Pyongyang.

He told Newsweek of his experiences with the once famously reclusive leader.

What did you expect when the meeting was arranged with Kim?

We made it clear ahead of the visit that we would only talk about sport-related matters. We received assurances the visit would not be any kind of political statement, but that the IOC would keep its political neutrality, which is our mission. This was respected—the meeting with Kim Jong Un took place in a stadium and not in a government building.

Did you learn anything new about him?

He emphasized he likes sports very much and he held great respect for the Olympic spirit of political neutrality and dialogue. He said he visited the Olympic Museum in Lausanne twice before [while living in Switzerland as a teenager] and that he was very appreciative of the role of the IOC in relaxing tensions. He even asked about whether certain installations in Lausanne, which at the time impressed him, were still there.

Kim Jong Un has been called a madman. How did he appear to you?

He was very well-informed. His comments and questions were very straight-forward, in many respects even detailed. This allowed us to have a fruitful discussion because he was very clear about the participation in the coming Olympic Games. We also discussed how to improve the performance of North Korean athletes on the international level.

Did you discuss U.N. sanctions, which ban the trade of sports equipment?

No. The IOC has respected and is respecting U.N. sanctions. The U.N. Sanctions Committee issued a sanction waiver with regards to the sports equipment the IOC provided to the athletes participating in Pyeongchang.

How do you react to criticism that North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics was just a charm offensive?

If this charm offensive leads to peace talks, I welcome every charm offensive. On a more serious note, the mission of the IOC and the Olympic Games is to bring the world together. This mission is even more important in times of political tensions and we are proud that we managed to bring the whole world together in one place for a peaceful competition.

Your next goal is to bring North Korean athletes to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Will this be difficult due to Japan and North Korea’s long-standing rivalry?

The position of the IOC is very clear and it is accepted by the host country, who guaranteed that the athletes and officials accredited by the IOC will be allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. On the other hand, the IOC fully respects the government and the political authority of the host country, and it is up to them to invite any political official. This is the political neutrality of the Games and of the IOC. We are sure everybody respects that because this is what makes the Olympic Games so unique.

What would you advise political leaders scheduled to meet with Kim?

I would not give advice to political leaders over the media, but what I can say is, having met both President Moon and Kim Jong Un, I was hoping their summit meeting on April 27 could be successful. That's where the experience of the Olympic Games plays a role. We engaged in dialogue for years with both sides, and this finally led to a good and positive results. I think both countries are encouraged by this experience.

Thomas Bach’s answers were shortened and edited for clarity.

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