Meet the North Korean skaters preparing to fly the regime's flag in the Winter Olympics

After qualifying in September, the athletes could represent Pyongyang over the border

Jeremy B. White
San Francisco
Wednesday 10 January 2018 00:26
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Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik of North Korea compete in Oberstdorf, Germany
Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik of North Korea compete in Oberstdorf, Germany

A pair of North Korean figure skaters are set to benefit from a thaw in relations between Pyongyang and Seoul that could see them travel to South Korea for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

After representatives of the two nations met for the first time in years, easing tensions that had soared as the North tested ballistic missiles and a hydrogen bomb, Pyongyang said it would send a delegation to the games being staged over the border in Pyeongchang.

That opens to the door for Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik, who qualified for the Olympics with a career-best performance at the Nebelhorn Trophy competition in Germany in September.

It was unclear at the time if their triumphant skate would translate into an appearance on the world stage. But with an Olympic-centred detente underway, the two will likely get their shot at the spotlight.

If they do appear in Pyeongchang, the 25-year-old Kim and Ryom, who turns 19 in February, will face stiff competition against the world’s best. But they nevertheless could be North Korea’s best shot at securing a medal.

They have had their mettle tested against world-class rivals. While North Korea’s isolation partitions many of its citizens from the outside world, Ryom and Kim have competed in a variety of events that have taken them outside of the Korean Peninsula.

In 2016 they took first place at the Asian Figure Skating Trophy in Manila, the Philippines, and came seventh in the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taipei, Taiwan.

Last year, they placed 15th at the International Skating Union’s world championships in Helsinki, Finland, one slot above the Australian entrants and better than a dozen pairs who failed to qualify for the event’s finals.

For their routines in Finland, the pair skated to a Jeff Beck cover of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and Canadian artist Ginette Reno’s tune “Je suis qu’une chanson” (I’m just a song).

The song is not their only exposure to Canadian culture. The pair has trained under Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte, who in a November 2017 interview with Reuters recounted how the unexpectedly affectionate pair would give him hugs after training sessions.

“They were not afraid to show their emotions,” Mr Marcotte told Reuters, adding that the skaters were “like a rough diamond – rough, but one that could be so good eventually”.

North Korean delegation to go to Winter Olympics in South Korea

Some of that emotion could be seen in the pair’s performance in Germany earlier this year. As the familiar chords of the Beatles’ hit died away, the black-and-silver clad skaters broke into broad smiles, thrust their fingers in the air and waved.

“There were many people of different nationalities and backgrounds cheering for us,“ The New York Times quoted Ryom as saying after. ”The fact that we gave them some kind of joy, that was the best part in the performance.”

With his proteges poised to glide onto one of the world’s largest stage, Mr Marcotte was less reserved in his praise — and noted that the intense geopolitical backdrop should not overshadow their accomplishments.

“They’re very good,” Mr Marcotte told the Globe and Mail. “There’s been a lot of talk about the political consequences but what has been overlooked is that they qualified. They earned the right to be there.”

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