North Korean Cheering Squad
By Mark Sample, Contributing Writer
A number of locals and media outlets have commented on North Korea’s perceived “hijacking” of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics by mockingly dubbing them the “Pyongyang Games.” At the forefront of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea propaganda machine is its team of cheerleaders, who are capturing hearts and minds of South Koreans and spectators from around the globe.
Donned in matching outfits, the squad of more than 230 fanatics have been mesmerizing, and are arguably stealing center stage from the competing athletes. The unique and synchronized routines will certainly be a key memory of these Games, but with no media access to the “army of beauties”, a lot of questions remain unanswered.
Nevertheless, some details have emerged.
Notably, just like this isn’t the first time the Koreas have formed a unified team – In 1991, teams participated in the World Table Tennis Championships and the FIFA World Youth Championship – it is actually the third time they’ve sent a cheering squad to the South. Previous visits include: a 288-member delegation at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, a 306-member team during the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu, and most recently, 125-fanatics at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
As a noteworthy component of the thawing tensions between the Koreas, it is important to try to understand who the cheerleaders are, what we can learn from their participation in previous international events, and why they’re with us at PyeongChang 2018.
Who are they?
Testimonies from North Korean defectors have shown that it’s no easy thing to get into the squad. Participants are scrutinized in terms of their age, appearance, ancestry, and loyalty to the regime. For instance, height is a priority and those shorter than 165cm are unlikely to be seen gracing the stands at PyeongChang even if they fit the age limit of being late-teens to early-twenties. Also, applicants with family out of the country are considered a flight risk; thus, ineligible. And generally, the squad is made up of university students from Pyongyang that major in aesthetically pleasing subjects such as dance and music.
What was notable from previous appearances?
While their first visit for the Asian Games in Busan went relatively smoothly, the Daegu Universiade in 2003 saw the cheerleaders making headlines for extreme displays of loyalty toward their regime. One example involved members breaking into tears and frantically running to retrieve a Kim Jong-il banner that had gotten wet in the rain. Apparently, the squad could not bear to see their Dear Leader sodden.
The 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon will be remembered by some for the Chinese domination on the playing field, but in the stands a future prominent figure was part of North Korea’s 124-member cheerleading squad. Ri Sol-ju, wife of Kim Jong-un, was then 16, and it was here that she began her journey into the North Korean elite. Her looks helped her garner popularity in South Korea and abroad, and experts speculate this aided her route to Kim’s side.
Why are they at PyeongChang 2018?
Tipped to attend the Asian Games again in 2014 with the goal of improving tense relations, North Korea pulled the plug that time after failing to agree on issues such as expenditure. Thus, following an absence of over 10 years, the cheerleaders’ presence at PyeongChang is significant, and a part of the olive branch being held out to the South in recent weeks. The announcement came amid tensions following a year of verbal aggression aimed at South Korea, Japan, and the US. The charm offensive has helped Pyongyang’s global image, and also created tension between President Moon and the US administration, which isn’t as quick to forget about Pyongyang’s regular missile tests and war-mongering in 2017.
However, it's not just Pyongyang that has something to gain. Low ticket sales and frosty public interest in the Winter Games meant that the organizers needed something to spur public interest, and a quick Google search shows the increased publicity received on the back of the cheerleaders’ presence. Also, images of the “army of beauties” rather than parades involving intercontinental ballistic missiles is more likely to convince the international audience that South Korea is a country safe to visit, and not under the threat of impending war.
Ultimately, the cheerleaders are a controversial facet in a situation where politics has once again sneaked into the world of sports, but it is a tool that is being used by both Koreas to improve their global statuses.