North Korea cheerleaders: Why the world is so excited for the regime's most popular 'army' at the Winter Olympics

Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju was first seen as a member of the elite 'army of beauties'

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 09 January 2018 14:30
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North Korean official cheerleaders sing prior to the start of the women’s weight lifting final at the 14th Asian Games in 2002
North Korean official cheerleaders sing prior to the start of the women’s weight lifting final at the 14th Asian Games in 2002

North Korea has finally announced that it will be joining in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. But it’s not the athletes that anyone is excited about.

Far more than the competitors – far more, even, than the diplomats who will be conducting potentially positive discussions to bring tensions between the two countries down – the Koreas will be incredibly excited to finally get their cheerleaders back on the road.

The group, referred to by South Korean media as the “army of beauties”, are – alongside some select politicians and sportspeople – among the rare and very limited set of people who are even allowed out of the country.

Just heading to the games is newsworthy, especially at a time when the leaders of North Korea and the US seem to have taken a brief break from hurling threats of nuclear war at each other, and the North and South are opening up talks.

It’s not the first time that the cheerleaders have appeared to be the harbingers of less tense relationships between North and South Korea and the rest of the world – but it hasn’t always worked.

The announcement that cheerleaders would be heading along to the games might seem like a strange footnote. But it’s actually the opposite way around: it’s possible that the athletes would never have been sent by the North Korea government on their own, since many politicians link their success directly to having the cheerleaders.

The “army of beauties” usually vastly outnumbers the athletes the country sends to the games. In 2003, for instance, the country sent 528 people along – 303 of whom were cheerleaders.

They became hugely popular in the years that followed. During events in 2004 and 2005, they were under great international scrutiny, with global TV coverage being picked over for glimpses of both the dancers themselves, and the regime they represented.

The women are reportedly chosen based in large part on their attractiveness, and encouraged to keep up that look as they serve in the cheerleaders. There are various videos on YouTube that consist of clips of the cheerleaders next to titles like “Hot North Korean cheerleaders” or “Young and Beautiful Cheerleader”.

But it isn’t just on that basis: the women – most of whom are in the early twenties, picked out from students and propagandists – are also picked for having the right “ideology”. They are closely vetted to ensure that they’ll properly represent North Korea both at home and abroad, according to local reports, through a process that checks whether they’re related to Japanese sympathisers or defectors.

It was during the glory years of the early 2000s that Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was reportedly part of the cheerleading team for the Asian Athletics Championships. During that competition in Incheon, South Korea, she was able to see outside of the hermit kingdom.

But it was at that same time that 21 cheerleaders were thrown into prison camps for talking about the happy life they had seen while they were in the South, according to reports from Korea.

In 2006, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that a North Korean defector had fled to China and cast light on the alleged human rights abuses, which included a group of women who broke a pledge not to talk about what they had seen of the world during their time in the cheerleading squad, and so were being held in a prison camp.

On joining the cheerleaders, the women committed to treat their visit to the South as a trip into “enemy territory”, the same report claimed, and not talk about what they did or saw there. They were told they would be punished if they did.

It’s a sign of the incredibly high esteem that the cheerleaders are held in their own country. And it’s also a suggestion of the high stakes hanging over the women signed up to take part.

In 2005, amid continuing tensions between the Koreas, the trips stopped. After three trips – each hailed for both the cheerleaders’ popularity as well as the geopolitical situation that had allowed them to travel there – the journeys came to an end.

They did head to the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China, but their time heading to South Korea was over. It’s likely that they continued to perform inside the country – which holds an annual festival focused on gymnastics and dancing, called Arirang – but the popular dancers were seen no more.

Then in 2014, North Korea announced with great fanfare that it would be sending its cheerleaders along to the Asian Games. Like this year, doing so was seen as an important breakthrough.

The women are heartthrobs in South Korea – but like their homeland, are fenced off from the rest of the world (Reuters)

The visit would “create an atmosphere” of reconciliation, statements to state media said. “Our sincere decision this time will melt the frozen North-South relations with the heat of national reconciliation while displaying the entire Korean people’s will of unification in and outside (of the peninsula),” a statement read.

Seoul agreed to the visit, though with a little less excitement. “We have no reason to reject the cheering squad that is to be sent in accordance with international practice,” it said in a statement then.

Then everything fell apart. Not long before the games started, North Korea announced that it wouldn’t be sending its delegation of cheerleaders along after all, apparently after a dispute over expenses and other problems – and even threatened to pull out entirely, accusing the South of having attempted to undermine its athletes’ efforts.

Just as the suggestion that the cheerleaders would come had been a sign of warming relations, the decision to pull out became its own major international event. As such, the decision to send them to Pyeongchang will mark the team’s first visit in years, and only the fourth since the war.

The international community is buzzing about the potentially thawing relationships between the two countries – and the South Korean fans will finally get another chance to watch the dancers.

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