NORTH Korea’s cheerleaders continued to steal the limelight in PyeongChang before they met their match.
The Korean women’s ice hockey team — a combined outfit made up of North and South Korean players — lost 8-0 to Sweden late on Monday night but you wouldn’t have known about the demoralising result by looking at the action in the stands.
North Korea’s cheerleaders — who had already sent social media into a frenzy with their earlier appearances — roared for their team as they clapped, waved flags and cheered.
But they weren’t the only ones making noise. Their synchronised display had to take a back seat when four South Korean cheerleaders, dressed in white crop tops and short pink shorts, stepped onto a platform and waved pompoms around as they danced to Avril Lavigne’s Girlfriend.
It was a more upbeat and modern approach than what we’d seen from the North Korean squad, who reportedly sang ballads about their country in response to the interruption.
That two sets of opposing cheerleaders were on hand to support the same team shows just how deep the divide between north and south really is.
The North Korean cheer squad — dubbed by the south as the “army of beauties” — was dispatched to the Games as part of a charm offensive after months of fiery rhetoric threatening nuclear war and provocative missile tests.
National security analysts claim the campaign is aimed to drive a wedge between the US and South Korea, as the North rushes to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons.
More than 200 of the nation’s cheerleaders appeared during a preliminary round ice hockey match against Switzerland on day one of competition.
The first Kim dynasty member to visit the south since the 1950-53 Korean War, Kim Yo Jong sat alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in to watch the Koreans suffer an 8-0 shutout.
But it was the political symbolism of North Korea’s famed “army of beauties” that stole the show in front of some 3600 besotted locals.
The cheerleaders performed a variety of songs, clapping and holding masks in unison, and a Mexican wave, as the group leader paced up and down an aisle in front of them, enthusiastically conducting.
In a stark clash of cultures, the North Koreans sang “uri nun, hana da” (we are one) and clapped as local hip hop artists rapped on a stage behind them and K-Pop blared over the loudspeakers.
The cheer squad’s uniform: red jumpsuits — covering skin from the top of their necks to their toes — and white beanies. The performance set the Twittershphere alight, with social media users dubbing it everything from “the wildest thing I’ve ever seen” to “scary” and “magnificent”.
The ladies, all in their late teens or early 20s, were reportedly selected for their good looks from elite universities and subjected to strict background checks.
An Chan-Il, a defector researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, said the cheerleaders are cherrypicked by the regime based on specific criteria.
“They must be over 1.63m tall and come from good families,” Mr An told reporters. “Those who play an instrument are from a band and others are mostly students at the elite Kim Il-Sung University.”
Local fans took pictures of the cheerleaders, who smiled for the cameras before unfurling a unification flag at the final buzzer. They continued to chant long after the rest of the arena had emptied.
The cheer squad arrived in the South alongside 26 taekwondo performers, 21 journalists and four North Korean Olympics committee members, the Unification Ministry said.
The troupe was cheered by dozens of fans as their bus pulled up under tight security before the game, an indication of the fanfare that follows them.
All dressed in black fur caps, knee-length red coats and ankle boots, they waved and smiled at reporters who were trailing them, The Sun reported.
The North only agreed last month to attend its first Olympics in the South, but each time Pyongyang considers sending a delegation to a sporting event in South Korea drama often seems to follow.
At the 2003 University Games in Taegu, accusations that local right-wing groups had “ransacked” bedrooms and stolen underwear at the North Korean delegation’s hotel prompted the cheerleaders to down pompoms in protest.
North and South Korea have shared a heavily fortified border since the Korean War ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
The cheerleaders made their first appearance at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, hitting the headlines when nearly 300 of them arrived on a ferry dressed in colourful hanboks — traditional Korean dresses — and waving so-called unification flags, a pale blue silhouette of the whole Korean peninsula.
Hundreds of Busan residents lined the port to greet them, with several homes also flying unification flags.
With their tight choreography — sometimes using props such as fans — the cheerleaders were lavished with attention as they sang and danced in the stands.
In 2005, former North Korean cheerleader Cho Myung-Ae — whose good looks had gained her a huge following in the South — appeared in a television commercial for a Samsung mobile phone with South Korean pop star Lee Hyo-Ri.
The supporters have always proven to be a major ticket draw, and their attendance is good news for the PyeongChang Games organisers.
“It will help with ticket sales,” PyeongChang Organising Committee spokesman Sung Baik-You, said last month.
“It will fulfil our desires for a peace Olympics.”
When North Korean teams have played in the South without accompanying supporters, pro-unification South Koreans have turned out to support them, such as at a women’s ice hockey match last year in Gangneung, an Olympic venue.
“A joint cheering squad would be phenomenal,” said Lee Sun-Kyung, who organised the group.
In South Korea, cheerleaders are immensely popular. The most famous cheerleader, Park Ki Ryang, has made a living as a singer and dancer. She was selected as the country’s best cheerleader two years in a row and even appeared on local television sitcoms.
— With AFP
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