BY ERIC TALMADGE
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) — Unprepared and outclassed, North Korea’s 22 athletes wrapped up their competition at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Thursday without a finish higher than 13th.
North Korea wasn’t expected to come to Pyeongchang until a last-minute announcement by Kim Jong Un on New Year’s Day that he wanted to send a team, which set off a flurry of North-South diplomatic machinations allowing their delegation to cross the border.
With few athletes prepared and ready, the North sent more than 140 musicians, a demonstration taekwondo team, a 229-woman strong cheering squad and 21 journalists, though the sporting aspect of the Olympics has gotten virtually zero coverage in the North.
Their athletes’ lack of experience and preparation showed.
The sentimental highlight of the North’s participation in the games was the joint Korea ice hockey team, which featured players from North and South for the first time. Although it was ranked below the Olympic qualifying level, South Korea won an ice hockey berth in the games because it is the host nation. South Korean President Moon Jae-in championed the effort to allow 12 North Korean players to join the team.
The concept won emotional support from many South Koreans, but it was also controversial because it took slots away from more talented South Koreans who had trained hard for the Olympics. The team ended up losing every game they played — giving up 28 goals and scoring only twice in their five matches. They lost their final match on Tuesday to Sweden, 6-1.
Not counting the mostly South Korean hockey squad, the North’s best performance came from figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, who finished 13th in pairs.
They were the only North Koreans to have actually qualified for the Olympics in pre-games competition, though the North missed a registration deadline and the two had lost their slot until politics intervened on their behalf.
Here’s how the remaining North Koreans fared:
—Short track skater Jong Kwang Bom, who is 16, stumbled and fell at the start and was last in his 500-meter heat. The North’s other short track competitor, Choe Un Song in the 1,500, took a hard fall in practice and was also last in his heat.
—Alpine skier Kim Ryon Hyang was 54th out of 54 finishers in the women’s slalom and 67th out of 67 finishers in the giant slalom. Choe Myong Gwang and Kang Song Il went 74th and 75th, out of 75 finishers, in the men’s giant slalom. In Thursday’s slalom, Choe was again the final finisher, while Kang failed to complete his second run.
—In cross country, Ri Yong Gum finished 89th out of 90 in women’s 10-kilometer free race, while Han Chun Gyong was 101st and teammate Pak Il Chol 107th in the 15 kilometer free. There were 116 men in that race.
North Korea has participated in nine Winter Olympics, starting at Innsbruck in 1964. It has won two medals: a silver and a bronze, in speedskating and short-track speedskating.
Their biggest win at the Pyeongchang Games was on the political front.
Kim Jong Un sent his younger sister to attend the games’ opening ceremony, which she watched from the VIP seats with President Moon and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence — though she and Pence did not acknowledge each other’s presence. It was the first time a member of the North’s ruling Kim family had come to the South, and she invited Moon to visit Pyongyang for a summit with her brother.
The North is expected to send another senior delegation for Sunday’s closing ceremony.
Ivanka Trump is to lead the U.S. delegation to that ceremony, but there are no plans for the North Koreans and the Americans to meet, according to local reports.
Eric Talmadge, Pyongyang bureau chief for The Associated Press, is on assignment at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @erictalmadge
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