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Curious About the Lives of North Korea’s Isolated Athletes? Here’s a Glimpse

TOKYO — The arrival of 22 athletes from North Korea to compete in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, has been greeted by a predictable news media scrum, with journalists scrambling to coax comments from these emissaries of one of the world’s most reclusive countries.

Like many things known about North Korea, its state athletic program is obscured by propaganda and limited access. But cobbling together information from the country’s state news media, analysts, defectors and athletes who have competed alongside North Koreans has given us some insights.

Who are the North Korean athletes competing in Pyeongchang?

This year, only two athletes in the North Korean contingent — the figure skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik — qualified for the Games on merit by placing at a competition last fall in Oberstdorf, Germany. The rest, including short track speedskaters and both Alpine and cross-country skiers, have been granted exemptions by the International Olympic Committee. A dozen North Koreans have also joined the South Korean women’s ice hockey team. The expectation is that few, if any, of North Korea’s athletes will end up on a medal podium.

Why is North Korea sending athletes?

Their participation is a potential publicity coup for Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, as it shifts attention away from his nuclear program and human rights abuses.

“Just by participating in these high-profile games, North Korea comes across as far more empathetic,” said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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“Because they are so poor and backward, we tend to be somewhat fascinated by any glimpse of North Koreans,” Mr. Lee said. “And when they are working so hard you tend to root for them because they are such an underdog in so many ways.”

How has North Korea performed at past Olympics?

North Korean athletes have competed on and off in the Games since 1964, when Han Pil-hwa won the silver medal in the 3,000-meter women’s speedskating race. That was the first of only two medals that North Korea has won at any Winter Games. It did not send any athletes to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

The country has fared better at the Summer Olympics, winning a total of 54 medals in judo, weight lifting and gymnastics. At the Rio Games in 2016, North Korean athletes won seven medals.