People Are More Interested In North Korea's Cheerleaders Than The Winter Olympics

Natalie Gil

It may sound unlikely, but the world is spellbound by the North Korean cheerleading squad at the Winter Olympics, currently underway in South Korea. The group of 230 young women and girls, often referred to as Kim Jong-un’s "army of beauties", made waves at the games on Monday in Gangneung, where they were supporting the unified Korean ice hockey team.

In January it was announced that the neighbouring countries would field a joint women's hockey team and march together under a single "unified" flag. It marks the first time the countries have ever competed on the same team at an Olympic Games and required the opening of the border between the countries for the first time in nearly two years. So naturally, the world's media is taking an interest in North Korea's presence at the games.

But why all the fuss about the country's cheerleaders? Not only is their presence fascinating in itself, the huge squad – which outnumbers North Korea's competing athletes by around 10 to one – has provided an inimitable spectacle already.

On Monday, when the unified Korean team played its second ice hockey match and lost to Sweden, the crowd went wild for the girls and young women, who were decked out in identical red and white outfits and performed a perfectly coordinated routine involving clapping, chanting, flags and masks, which some in the South said resembled a young Kim Il-Sung, North Korea's first leader and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.

However, as many have pointed out, the outwardly cheerful display has a dark underbelly. While some have praised the squad as a symbol of reconciliation between the North and South, others have described it as an extension of the North Korean propaganda campaign, designed to exacerbate geopolitical tensions. They have continued their routines to their own songs on top of entirely different music, seemingly "oblivious to their surroundings", staring straight ahead and chanting “We are one!”, the New York Time s reported.

The all-female squad is also selected based on very strict criteria. Members must be no older than their early 20s, at least 5"3' tall (160 cm), come from a good family, be well assimilated to the country's regime and be "exemplars of working collectively," North Korean defector to the South, Han Seo-hee, 35, who was selected as a cheerleader 16 years ago, told the New York Times.

They are being tightly controlled during the games, being kept in large groups and accompanied by minders, usually North Korean men at all times, even during trips to the bathroom. They are prevented from interacting with strangers, including South Koreans, many of whom will be coming face-to-face with North Koreans for the first time at the Games.

Furthermore, in 2006, 21 of their fellow cheerleaders were imprisoned for talking about their experiences in South Korea during a University Games tour, which was forbidden, the Taipei Times reported. Some believe it is the threat of punishment, as opposed to the excitement of the event, that has contributed to the squad's relentlessness.

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