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How Insulting Is North Korean Flag Mixup?

Right before North Korea was set to compete in an Olympic women’s soccer match yesterday, an introductory video showed the South Korean flag instead of the North Korean one — prompting the team to walk off the field in protest. The Olympic organizers have since apologized to North Korea, but according to the Christian Science Monitor, this will “go down in Olympic history as a major insult”:

In the long history of the Olympic Games, stretching across more than a century, two World Wars, and a Games put on by the Third Reich, one might think that exchanging the South Korean flag for the North Korean flag might not be the worst mistake ever made by a host nation.

But it might well be.

“This is way more insulting,” says [David] Wallechinsky [author of a book on the Olympics]. “To actually raise the flag of a nation considered your enemy – that’s a real bad one.”

However offensive the flag mixup was, it was still less insulting than the fact that North Korea is competing in the Olympics just like any other country while more than 100,000 of its people are thought to be withering away in concentration camps. Those who argue against politicizing the Olympics have some fair points — the games are about the athletes and not the countries. If you ban North Korea, you’d also have to ban Saudi Arabia and Iran, and then there would be a clamor of human rights activists agitating for one country or another to be barred as well.

On a practical level, it’s difficult to get banned from the Olympics, though it did happen to the Taliban’s Afghanistan and apartheid South Africa after their discriminatory laws were carried over to their Olympic teams. Because North Korea’s oppression isn’t confined by gender or ethnic or racial lines, it may continue to get a pass.

But Olympics officials certainly shouldn’t lose any sleep over the flag blunder. The athletes from North Korea deserve as much respect as any other competitors and should be treated fairly. As for their government and their flag — well. Accidentally insulting the DPRK isn’t the same as accidentally snubbing France or Canada, and there’s no reason for commentators to act as if it is.