Ri Songgum won the women's 49kg weightlifting title in Hangzhou ©Getty Images

North Korea made a spectacular return to international weightlifting when its top women broke five world records, won two gold medals and defeated Olympic and world champions from China, during the Asian Games.

On the first day of weightlifting competition in Hangzhou, Ri Songgum won at 49 kilograms despite failing with two of her first three attempts. She beat world champion Jiang Huihua and took her two world records in clean and jerk and total.

At 55kg, North Korea had a one-two finish as Kang Hyongyong finished 23kg clear of the Chinese Olympic 49kg champion Hou Zhihui, who was up in weight for the first time today.

Kang took a sweep of world records - all held by Chinese lifters - in making 103-130-233 ahead of team-mate Ri Suyon on 96-126-222. Hou, who congratulated her victors, made 95-115-210.

Chen Guan Ling from Chinese Taipei, who won the world title at this weight in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia four weeks ago, was a distant fourth, 35kg behind the winner.

While Chen had less than four weeks between major appearances, Kang had six years, having last lifted at the Asian Junior Championships in 2017 when she won on 209kg in the old 58kg category. Ri Songgum had not competed for four years.

Jiang, who leads the Olympic rankings, made all six attempts but her 94-119-213 was not enough.

Ri Songgum, in her first competition since December 2019 when she won the IWF World Cup in Tianjin, China with a total of 209kg, started badly. She failed with her first and third snatch attempts and was 2kg behind Jiang at halfway.

The podium for the women's 49kg weightlifting category, where emotions ran high for gold medallist Ri Songgum ©Getty Images
The podium for the women's 49kg weightlifting category, where emotions ran high for gold medallist Ri Songgum ©Getty Images

But Ri, who put her success down to "lots of hard training", was confident enough in clean and jerk to open at 117kg, only 3kg below Jiang’s record.

She made that and had two lifts to come when Jiang had finished. The first on 122kg earned gold and the clean and jerk world record, and the second on 124kg stretched it further and took the total record too. Ri finished 92-124-216.

Thanyathon Sukcharoen from Thailand, a double world champion at 45kg, finished third on 90-109-199.

The silver and bronze medallists warmly congratulated Ri before the medal ceremony and at a media conference afterwards.

"I was absent from world-class competitions for four years," Ri said. 

North Korea withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games after the COVID pandemic and was then suspended by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"I feel like my efforts in training were not in vain. My coach contributed a lot (to this)," Ri added.

"During the COVID period I did a lot of hard training and that’s why today I achieved this great result and broke the world record.

Double world champion Thanyathon Sukcharoen took women's 49kg bronze in Hangzhou ©Getty Images
Double world champion Thanyathon Sukcharoen took women's 49kg bronze in Hangzhou ©Getty Images

"All my training was in my own country and I participated in a lot of national competitions."

Jiang said she was surprised by Ri’s performance. "It was out of her expectation and out of my expectation," she said. 

"It is good news for China because it shows we can’t stay in the comfort zone."

China, whose athletes lead eight of the 10 Olympic ranking lists, will not have to worry about North Korea at Paris 2024 because the Koreans are not eligible to qualify, having failed to participate in any of the four ranking events to date.

Many athletes, coaches and federation officials were outraged when North Korea was cleared to take part at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) Grand Prix in Cuba in June, putting the team on the pathway to Paris. But they did not turn up there, and missed the IWF World Championships in Saudi Arabia too.

No North Koreans have been subject to out-of-competition anti-doping tests during their four-year absence. This is beyond the control of the IWF and other International Federations.

The International Testing Agency (ITA), which carries out all anti-doping procedures for the IWF, said it was "not feasible" for it to conduct unannounced testing in a country that is effectively closed to the rest of the world.

Of all positive samples that have led to athletes being suspended since December 2019, when North Koreans last competed, about three-quarters came from out-of-competition tests.

Discussions between the IWF and North Korean sports authorities are expected to take place in the next few days in Hangzhou.

The IWF Board has voted through a new policy to exclude countries where "it is not possible to conduct free anti-doping controls", effective from January 1 next year.