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july 20, 2012 • 11:45 PM • last update 04:15 AM

North Korea looks to flex muscles in London

North Korea's Kim Jo Ran (R) celebrates after scoring against Japan at the women's qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympic Games in Jinan, Shandong province, in this September 8, 2011 file photo.
Foto: Files / Reuters In English

Isolated, impoverished and home to 200,000 political prisoners, North Korea will look to flex its muscles at the London Olympics in weightlifting and wrestling.

Under new leader Kim Jong-un, third of his line to rule the state, North Korea has projected a more open image than that of his austere father, who rarely spoke in public, with rock concerts, Disney characters and footage of a laughing and smiling young Kim.

"The DPRK (Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea) pins its hopes on weightlifting and wrestling, in particular. Women's football is also hopeful," state news agency KCNA said this week as the country's 51 athletes arrived in London.

North Korea has won 41 medals since 1964 when it first joined the Games, 10 of which were gold. It scooped two gold, one silver and three bronze medals in Beijing.

UNDER-AGE GYMNASTS

There would have been more North Korean athletes in London but for a two-year ban imposed on their gymnastics team for falsifying their ages.

Gymnast Hong Su Jong listed three different birth dates in registering for international competitions from 2003 to 2010. The minimum age for Olympic gymnasts is 16, but Hong was under-age.

This was the second time that North Korea has been punished for age falsification, after the FIG (International Gymnastics Federation) discovered that Kim Gwang Suk, the 1991 world gold medalist, was listed as 15 for three years in a row.

North Korea also has high hopes for its women's soccer team, the winner of the 2008 Asian Football Confederation women's tournament.

In the 2011 Women's World Cup, five North Korean players tested positive for a prohibited steroid, although they said they were using traditional Chinese medicine of deer musk to treat players hit by a lightning strike.

The team, known as the "Cholimas" - a horse that represents toughness - beat Australia 1-0 to seize the last berth in their group, much to the distress of the Australians who said their opponents should have been banned from the Olympics.

There will be some needle when they face the United States on July 31 at the London Games, which run from July 27-August 12. The two countries have not signed a peace treaty since the 1950-53 Korean War and remain technically at war.

North Korea's state media regularly denounces the United States as a warmonger that still threatens its existence.

(Editing by David Chance)

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