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How North Korea has deployed a tool that has polarized the Winter Olympics

The North Koreans' two most unlikely spectators, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US Vice-President Mike Pence, were seated below and to the right of them

Joshua Robinson Eun-Young Jeong | WSJ 

South Korea—The diplomatic efforts between the two Koreas at the Pyeongchang Olympics so far have included a visit from Kim Jong Un’s sister, bilateral meetings and the decision to field a single squad of athletes under the flag of a unified Korea. Those instruments of statecraft, however, were conspicuously lacking in choreographed chants and speedy wardrobe changes. For that, North Korea has fallen back on its favorite weapon of mass distraction: cheerleader diplomacy. Already among the most polarizing attractions of these Winter Games, a squad of more than 100 young women in matching red tracksuits made its Olympic debut on Saturday night, putting on an unannounced display in the stands during short-track speedskating. The 12,000 fans inside the Gangneung Ice Arena couldn’t help but watch. The North Koreans’ two most unlikely spectators, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U. S. Vice-President Mike Pence, were seated below and to the right of them. “They’re super awesome,” 17-year-old American speedskating star Maame Biney said of the cheerleaders. “They have really beautiful voices.” For South Koreans, far from agonizing over geopolitics, actually seeing their living, breathing neighbors to the north has become a source of fascination. At the three events where the cheerleaders have been deployed, including a women’s hockey game between Sweden and the joint Korea team on Monday night, the aisles around them were instantly packed with locals hoping for a closer look. Forbidden from interacting with the cheerleaders, fans settled for photos, as if in a museum. Jeon Eui-su, a 23-year-old college student from Cheonan, stared in awe inside the hockey arena. Like most South Koreans born since the Korean War, he has gone his entire life without encountering anyone who actually lives in the north. “We might have some blood ties,” he said. It would be almost impossible to say for sure. Like most emissaries from North Korea, little is known about the members of the cheer squad. They have traveled sporadically outside the North to sporting events since 2002, where they are forbidden from talking to anyone, including each other, about the relative opulence of the south. They are certainly held in high esteem by authorities: Kim Jong Un’s wife was a cheerleader in the mid-2000s. The 229 women make up the largest group of the 492-strong North Korean delegation here, according to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification. The women are believed to come from elite families living in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, where only a select three million of the country’s 25.4 million people are allowed to reside. As for their backgrounds, experts said, the women are most likely students from arts and performing schools, among the elite of North Korean society. Their estimated ages are between their late teens and early 20s. Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University’s Department of Unification and Diplomacy in Seoul, says the cheering is a cunning strategy remote-controlled by Pyongyang to weaken South Korea’s ties with the U. S. and loosen sanctions against North Korea. “They’re trying to appeal to people’s emotions,” says Nam, pointing to how the cheering squads’ chants and songs have so far revolved around the theme of “national cooperation.” If emotional reactions are what they were after, then they’ve planned well. At least inside the Olympic venues. The team cheered unequivocally for skaters from both sides of the 38th parallel. Their song repertoire included nostalgia-evoking tunes such as “My Hometown” and “Our Wish Is Unification,” which most South Koreans learned as children. Knowing those songs is one of the few things the cheerleaders and South Korean fans would have had in common. The cheerleaders are staying at Inje Speedium, a motor-racing facility with an attached hotel and resort.

The accommodation is located about 90 minutes away from the ice venues in Gangneung, where North Korean hockey players and skaters are competing. A spokesman at Inje Speedium didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Staff there declined to comment on whether the facility has been closed off to other guests. South Korean media have documented the squad’s movements obsessively. Snapshots of the cheerleaders walking to meals, waving at the camera, and even a controversial one taken inside the ladies’ room have cluttered news feeds. Matching the cheerleaders to celebrity look-alikes is now a popular pastime. The cheerleaders’ first widely reported engagement was the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, when the swooning south dubbed them the “army of beauties.” They did not, however, have a happy return. A 2007 human rights report by the U. S. State Department noted that 21 of the women were “imprisoned in the Daeheung prison camp, reportedly for discussing what they had seen.” A 2003 visit to the Summer Universiade in Daegu ran into a hitch when the cheerleaders spotted a poster of Kim Jong Il hanging askance and exposed to the elements in a way they deemed unworthy. Their bus convoy stopped as women scrambled out to the rescue, a moment captured by the southern press. They have since been to other editions of the Asian Games and the women’s soccer World Cup. Now in Pyeongchang, they are making their presence known wherever North Korean athletes, whom the cheerleaders outnumber 10-to-1, are competing. “I’m not going to lie, it was really loud,” said British speedskater Elise Christie, who worried that the noise might cause her to jump the gun. “It was exciting, but I was a bit like, ‘Are they going to be quiet at the start?’ ” The cheerleaders behaved. Under supervision from a row of stern-faced old men in DPRK tracksuits and an older woman with her back to the ice, they followed every instruction in unison. Between chants, the cheerleaders sat in silence, rarely even addressing each other. At one venue, they were never seen to take a sip of water or a bathroom break. Despite having all eyes on them, they barely engaged with their surroundings. On Monday, for instance, while a marriage proposal unfolded on the big screen, they stared blankly ahead. But when it was time to perform, they sang in clear, high-pitched tones. At short track, small groups of them cycled through three costume changes. One involved silky yellow robes and tiny hats. Another saw the government envoys dance in blue-and-white sweatshirts—the closest they came all night to resembling American cheerleaders. The group from the speedskating rink disappeared just as another deployment marched into the nearby Kwandong Hockey Center to cheer on the Korean unified women’s ice hockey team in the middle of an 8-0 defeat to Switzerland. But if the first platoon offered fairly conventional cheerleading fare, the second invited controversy with its choice of props. They weren’t pompoms. All at once, the cheerleaders pulled on cardboard masks of a young man’s face. Local media mistakenly said it was a picture of Kim Il Sung, the founding leader of North Korea and grandfather of Kim Jong Un. South Korea’s Ministry of Unification issued a statement the next day saying it “cross-checked the situation with North Korean officials who were present” and confirmed that the masks were not of Kim. The ministry did not provide any reason for why the cheerleaders would suddenly break out masks of a mystery gentleman in the middle of a sporting event. This being an act of North Korean diplomacy, no further explanation was given.

First Published: Tue, February 13 2018. 15:49 IST
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