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N. Korea dominates in weightlifting in return to int'l sports competition

Oct. 9, 2023 - 10:00 By Yonhap

North Korean weightlifters Jong Chun-hui (L) and Song Kuk-hyang (C) leave the victory ceremony for the women's 76kg weightlifting event at the Asian Games, with Kim Su-hyeon of South Korea behind them on the podium at Xiaoshan Sports Centre Gymnasium in Hangzhou, China, on Thursday. (Yonhap)

HANGZHOU(Yonhap) -- Marking its return to international multisport competition after a five-year absence, North Korea dominated in weightlifting at the 19th Asian Games in China.

Athletes and officials from the reclusive regime also generated headlines away from the field of play in and around Hangzhou.

North Korea had been absent from the past two major international sports competitions. It skipped the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021, citing COVID-19 concerns. The International Olympic Committee subsequently banned North Korea from the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, saying the country failed to fulfill its duties and obligations as an IOC member state.

The ban was lifted at the end of 2022. And because the 19th Asian Games were postponed by a year because of lingering COVID-19 issues, North Korea was eligible to participate in the continental event this fall.

North Korea finished in 10th place in the medal table with 11 golds, 18 silvers and 10 bronzes.

At the previous Asian Games in 2018, North Korea also ranked 10th, but with 12 golds, 12 silvers and 13 bronzes.

Considering that most North Korean athletes had not been competing internationally for the past couple of years leading up to Hangzhou, their performances across the board come as a surprise.

North Korea led all countries with six gold medals and 13 medals overall in weightlifting. Three weightlifters -- Ri Song-gum in the women's 49kg, Kang Hyon-gyong in the women's 55kg and Kim Il-gyong in the women's 59kg -- set world records, too.

Pang Chol-mi, one of North Korea's two flag bearers at the opening ceremony, grabbed her country's only gold medal in boxing. North Korea's first gold medal came from shooting, where the trio of Ri Ji-hye, Paek Ok-sim and Pang Myong-hyang won the women's 10m running target team title.

Their gold was followed moments later by artistic gymnast An Chang-ok, who soared to the women's vault title.

A few South Korea vs. North Korea showdowns materialized at this Asiad, including twice in women's basketball.

The two Koreas had assembled a joint team in women's basketball to win the silver medal behind China in 2018. A handful of members from the unified team -- Park Ji-su, Park Ji-hyun and Kang Lee-seul for the South, and Ro Suk-yong and Kim Hye-yon for the North -- competed against each other in Hangzhou. Jong Song-sim, the North Korean assistant coach for the unified team in 2018, returned as head coach of her native country this time.

The two teams first met during the preliminary round and then again in the bronze medal game. South Korea prevailed both times. After the first game, South Korean players said they felt hurt and disappointed that North Korean players didn't acknowledge them.

Elsewhere, North Korea knocked off South Korea in the quarterfinals of women's football with a 4-1 victory.

There were other instances in different sports where North Korean athletes refuse to shake hands with their South Korean opponents after events.

Athletes from the North also gave South Korean and other international media the cold shoulder, even after winning medals. They often skipped official press conferences arranged for medalists and walked through mixed zones without stopping to answer questions.

The lone exception was in weightlifting, where North Korean medalists attended press conferences and answered questions from South Korean media, though they at times needed interpretation help for the ones asked with particular South Korean phrases or expressions.

The most controversial moment for North Korea came in the men's football tournament. After losing to Japan in the quarterfinals, North Korean players, aggrieved over a late penalty awarded to their opponents, confronted and attacked referee Rustam Lutfullin after the final whistle. (Yonhap)