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PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Despite claiming only two gold medals in Rio, North Korea is as determined as ever to fulfill one of leader Kim Jong Un’s primary goals: to become an international sports superpower.

North Korea’s small Olympic team won its two golds in weightlifting, where it has a number of world-class and world-record-holding lifters, and gymnastics. Weightlifter Rim Jong Sim won the gold in the women’s 75-kilogram division, while gymnast Ri Se Gwang won the men’s vault. The North also won three silver and two bronze medals.

“When our Rim Jong Sim stood on the podium with our national anthem playing, she cried and my mother and I cried, too, as we watched on TV,” Ri Yun Gum, an 18-year-old government worker, said Monday in Pyongyang as the Rio games were coming to a close. “I think our athletes are able to win not just because they train hard, but because of their mental toughness.”

The performance was a tad shy of expectations, since North Korea had four golds in London.

But transforming North Korea, which has very limited economic resources and a population of only about 25 million, into a player to be reckoned with on the global sports stage is one of Kim’s pet projects, and he has poured funds into the development and training of promising athletes over the past several years.

It has already made a visible mark on Pyongyang.

The relatively affluent capital has seen the rise of a number of major new or renovated sports venues, and each year its usually restricted streets are opened for the Pyongyang Marathon, which has become a major tourist attraction. Though pickup volleyball games and football matches in schoolyards have long been a staple in the city, it’s now a common sight to see young people out jogging or even canoeing on the two main rivers that run through Pyongyang.

And while South Korea lets its top athletes get out of military service as a gold medal reward, elite athletes returning home to the North after winning international competitions often get a hero’s welcome — and maybe a condo.

Of course, Pyongyang’s push to garner international prestige and generate national pride by winning medals isn’t terribly original. It appears to have been pulled straight out of the playbook of former Soviet bloc countries like East Germany, and is similar to the strong political significance sports are still given in Russia and China, North Korea’s two biggest historical backers.

But the campaign is also seen as part of Kim’s effort to make North Korea a more modern nation.

“There are two reasons why sports are important,” Jang Sok Ha, manager of the newly opened Pyongyang Sports Equipment Factory, told The Associated Press on Monday. “People in good health can work harder, but they also need cultural rest and recreation.”

Jang’s sparkling new factory, which opened in April, is a big part of the drive and is one of the largest in the country. Its task is to provide regular people affordable sports equipment — from soccer balls to badminton rackets.

Standing in the factory showroom, surrounded by everything from field hockey balls to judo uniforms and bags of talcum powder for weightlifters, Jang proudly produced a basketball signed by former NBA star Dennis Rodman, one of the only foreigners to ever meet with Kim. He then grabbed a ball emblazoned with “Naesongsan,” his factory’s brand.

“Our balls are good enough to be used by the NBA, too,” he said.

North Koreans are able to follow the Olympics, or at least some selected events, on TV and radio broadcasts and in newspapers, all of which are run by the state.

“I watched the games every day,” said housewife Hong Un Byol, 34. “I was so happy to see our national flag raised after the gold medals. The athletes practiced a lot to give pleasure to the Marshal.” Kim is often respectfully referred to by that title, one of the many that he holds.

Beyond the playing field, sports have from time to time provided brief respites in the normally tense relations between the two Koreas.

During the 2000 Sydney Olympics, North and South Koreans marched together under a flag that symbolized unification. North Korea’s women’s soccer team won gold at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, with the South winning bronze. Many South Koreans delighted in seeing players from both countries celebrate together after the medal ceremony.

While such sentiments were generally absent during the Rio Olympics, one of the most touching moments came when gymnasts Hong Un Jong of North Korea and Lee Eun-ju of South Korea met on the sidelines during their event and posed together smiling for a selfie. Photos of their warm moments delighted many South Koreans and provided a rare note of concord in otherwise abysmal relations between the rivals.

Officially, however, both countries frown on such meetings.

The Korean Peninsula is still technically in a state of war because there has been no peace treaty signed to officially end the 1950-53 Korean War. Nearly 30,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea in what Seoul and Washington claim is a necessary deterrent to any threats from North Korea. Turning up the heat, the U.S. and South Korea just kicked off annual war games that Pyongyang says are a prelude to invasion.

Games or no games, accusations against the South of trying to create trouble — not of hugging gymnasts — are what dominate the headlines here.


Talmadge is the AP’s Pyongyang bureau chief.