The 1952 Inter-Camp Olympics Deep Inside North Korea

flag of North Korea
“It was great fun and made us forget about where we were for at least a few days.” —Clarence Adams describes some effects of the games

In A Nutshell

During the Korean War, North Korea wanted to prove they weren’t torturing their prisoners of war (which they totally were). So in 1952, the DPRK launched the Inter-Camp Olympic Games, a weird propaganda event that involved hundreds of UN POWs playing games like baseball, soccer, and volleyball. Interestingly, the POWs were pretty much in charge of the whole show and saw it as a way to escape the oppression of the prison camps.

The Whole Bushel

If you know anything about North Korea, you know it’s an incredibly weird country with unbelievably ridiculous propaganda. Whether it’s deifying their leaders or subjecting tourists to their insane gymnastics, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has been riding the crazy train since its inception.

Of course, the DPRK usually orders its own people to act out their freaky fantasies, but during the Korean War, the North got the rare opportunity to force foreigners to play their propaganda games. In 1952, the communists forced 500 prisoners-of-war to participate in one of the weirdest stunts ever pulled during wartime. Only instead of rebelling, most of the POWs actually enjoyed themselves.

As you probably know, North Korean prison camps aren’t exactly hot vacation spots. The North has never been big on the Geneva Convention, and UN soldiers captured by the commies were often starved and tortured. Thanks to their brutal tactics, the North was vilified around the world. That’s when they decided it was time for a makeover, and in true North Korean fashion, they put on a pretty impressive spectacle.

Hoping to prove they treated their prisoners well, the Koreans launched the 1952 Inter-Camp Olympics. With the help of Chinese volunteers, the North staged 12 days of peace, brotherhood, and disinformation, along with a heaping helping of competitive sports.

Officials chose 500 healthy-looking prisoners to compete, none of whom showed signs of abuse, because that kind of thing didn’t happen in North Korea (nope, never, no way). The athletes hailed from countries like Turkey, France, and Great Britain. There were Americans, South Koreans, and Australians, and none of them looked hungry or tired.

The competitors came from various camps across the country, and the games were held in a specially made stadium in Pyoktong. (The stadium was actually marked with signs so UN bombers wouldn’t blow the place up.) In addition to the athletes, POWs worked as judges and referees and served on the Olympic Committee. They started races and kept time. Some even took photographs and wrote articles for a POW newspaper called the Olympic Roundup.

The games began on November 15, and the opening ceremony featured soldiers marching around the arena in bright athletic outfits. They waved banners signifying which camp they were from, and every flag was emblazoned with a dove, the universal symbol for peace, which was pretty ironic given the circumstances. And as the bands played, an American named Willis Stone Jr. ran into the stadium bearing the Olympic torch.

Once the games got underway, the athletes competed in everything from football to boxing to swimming. They played baseball, volleyball, and soccer. Some proved their prowess in track and field while others impressed the audience with their gymnastic abilities. In addition to the more traditional sports, there was also tug-of-war, an arts-and-crafts contest, and even a talent show. And in true Olympics fashion, medals were awarded to the victors.

The games finally ended on November 26, and they were pretty controversial. The DPRK played up the event as a celebration of worldwide harmony and used communist contacts in America to present special Olympic booklets to the families of POWs who competed, a pretty low blow by anyone’s standards. Of course, there were quite a few soldiers in North Korea who disapproved of their comrades and declined to participate in the propaganda.

But why did 500 soldiers agree to go along with the DPRK? Were they collaborators, men who sold out their respective countries? Well, if you asked the athletes, they’d say they simply wanted to get out of their prison camps for a little bit. They wanted to meet other people, move around a bit, avoid any unnecessary punishment, and interact with friendly faces. One American soldier said the Olympics were the first time he’d been allowed to speak freely in two years. While the DPRK viewed the games as good PR, the soldiers saw them as a way to escape, if only for a moment.

As one US corporal put it, “It was great fun and made us forget about where we were for at least a few days.”

Show Me The Proof

An American Dream: The Life of an African American Soldier and POW [ . . . ], by Clarence Adams, Della Adams, Lewis H. Carlson
Unusual Footnotes to the Korean War, by Paul Edwards
Understanding the Korean War, by Arthur H. Mitchell
Listverse: 10 Eye-Opening ‘Vice’ Documentaries