North Korean supporters cheer during the preliminary round of the women’s hockey game between Switzerland and the combined Koreas at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — They’re the early breakout hit of the Winter Olympics, a singing, clapping — and perfectly matching — troupe of red-clad North Korean cheerleaders who march to their own kind of drummer.
Watch them in action, and it’s hard to turn away for reasons that are somewhat hard to explain. See them steal the show like they did in the unified Korean hockey game Saturday night and it’s easy to understand why they outnumber North Korean athletes 10-1 at these games.
More than 200 of them sang and smiled all night long, carrying the show long after the game was decided. Then, for good measure, they kept on going for 15 minutes after it was over before finally marching off in two perfectly formed long lines.
Campy, yes. For many observers from outside North Korea, it’s kind of creepy, too.
The fact remains that behind the smiles they represent a totalitarian state that is trying to produce nuclear weapons as well as it produces synchronized spectacles. Their routines are for the glory of dictator Kim Jong Un or one of his predecessors, even if some of their songs have been modified so to not offend at the Olympics.
At these games, they are front line soldiers in a charm offensive that has left South Koreans and games organizers both intrigued and befuddled.
“In my experience, the Olympic Games does not have organized cheerleading, but yesterday the North Korean cheering squad prepared a lot to cheer on the athletes and they changed their movements to the music and throughout the Games,” Sung Baik You, a spokesman for the organizing committee, said Sunday. “I think it will attract a lot of interest from people.”
On the first part, Sung is wrong. The South Koreans themselves used cheerleaders in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, employing them at one point to dance on the top of the left field fence at a baseball game. And cheer/dance squads showed up at previous Winter Olympics in Russia and at the beach volleyball venue in Rio.
But this there’s no doubt about the attention the group of young women is receiving at the Pyeongchang Games and beyond. That includes on Twitter, where clips of the singing and swaying northerners doing such popular North Korean hits as “Happy to Meet You” were widely shared.
Many on Twitter also criticized the troupe as pure propaganda for a dictator, and wondered if they were coerced into performing.
Kim runs a ruthless regime, but the women who make up the cheerleading squad — Kim’s wife is herself a former member — are reportedly mostly the daughters of the elite upper class who are often college students selected for their looks, musical skills and family standing. They sometimes give full musical performances with clarinets and other instruments, and often use props in their choreographed cheers.
“Women with family members missing or living abroad do not qualify, as they could pose potential flight risks,” the Korea Herald reported.
While the Korean hockey team took a beating, losing 8-0 to Switzerland, the women cheered with undiminished enthusiasm for more than two hours. At one point they held masks with the picture of a young man in front of their faces while singing “Whistle,” a North Korean pop song.
During breaks between periods, some fans tried to engage with them, only to be ignored. Others stood in front of them to take selfies with the cheerleaders in the background.
It was all in good fun, at least on the part of the spectators. Whether the cheerleaders were having any fun was hard to figure out since their smiles seemed frozen on their faces and their expressions never changed.