HANGZHOU, China - The superheavyweight giants wrap up the Asian Games weightlifting on Saturday but it was the North Koreans' stunning return after four years that raised eyebrows in Hangzhou.
The country that prides itself on shows of strength emerged from a self-imposed Covid exile to capture six gold medals, five silvers and two bronze in weightlifting.
They also smashed six world records.
Two weeks before the opening ceremony it was unclear if North Korea would show up, having failed to do so at the Tokyo Olympics and last month's weightlifting World Championships in Riyadh.
But they came and they conquered hosts China, who were second in the weightlifting standings with five golds, three silvers and one bronze.
North Korea proclaimed themselves "world leaders" at the sport, after not being seen in competition since December 2019.
"Now North Korea is ahead of us and we need to catch up. We cannot remain in the comfort zone," said China's head coach Wang Guoxin.
The gold rush raised questions about what the North Korean weightlifters had done while the country's borders were sealed to the outside world because of the pandemic.
Jang Song Nam, manager of the North Korean weightlifting team, said the success was "payback" for their sacrifices over years of Covid isolation.
"Our athletes for these Asian Games have put in so much hard work," said Jang.
"Every gold medal is payback for our hardship over four years. We are world leaders now. We wanted to show our strength, and we did it."
China's world champion Jiang Huihua, who saw her 49kg women's world record smashed by Ri Song Gum on the first day of competition, said she was "surprised" by the result.
And Chinese triple world champion Li Fabin, who just held off two North Koreans to win men's 61kg gold, said: "Their results shocked us, to be honest."
Earlier this year there was an outcry from federations, coaches and athletes when North Korea entered a weightlifting team for an event in Cuba without being independently tested for doping.
Australian coach Paul Coffa reportedly said that their participation in Havana would be "a catastrophe for weightlifting". In the end they did not turn up.
The executive board of the IWF, the sport's governing body, in July changed its rules.
In a statement to AFP, the IWF said it can now "ban from competitions lifters representing countries where doping tests could not be taken by the IWF or any anti-doping organisation with testing authority".
North Korea won't be cleaning up at the Olympics next year. A failure to take part in mandatory IWF qualifying events means they will not be in Paris.
The IWF said it had no jurisdiction over which countries take part in the Asian Games because they are administered by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA).
But it said all North Korean weightlifters had been subjected to at least one doping control in Hangzhou and two had been barred for failing to submit whereabouts reports for the past three months.
North Korea's anti-doping organisation was declared "non-compliant" and sanctioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2021.
The sanctions include North Korea supposedly not competing under its flag in Hangzhou.
WADA told AFP that the OCA would face "consequences" for allowing the flag to be repeatedly flown at the Games — including when North Korean weightlifters won medals.
WADA said that North Korea was beginning to open up — a necessity if it wants to rejoin the global sporting landscape — and "has now made provision for international testing authorities to be allowed entry" to collect doping samples.
But it warned: "The broader political status of the country means verification and quality control activities are not straightforward."