North Korea’s Cheerleaders
by Alyssa Cho
Prior to the women’s ice hockey match between Switzerland and the Unified Korean team during the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games on Monday, a massive group of women donning red coats and black caps marched into the Kwandong Hockey Centre, generating a large reaction from the audience. The crowd responded with wonder and fascination at the appearance of the 229 North Korean cheerleaders, snapping pictures and attempting to bombard them with questions. But members of the cheer squad only smiled and pushed onward with their performance, refusing to answer any questions. They had come to do one thing, and one thing only: to cheer.
It is not surprising that these cheerleaders have piqued the curiosity of spectators, as so little is known about them. Prior to what is considered their public debut at the Games, they have made few appearances outside of North Korea: the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu, and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
According to An Chan-Il, a North Korean defector who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, many of the cheerleaders are selected among students at the elite Kim Il-sung University. Some are drawn from performance troupes around the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, and those who play an instrument are selected from a band associated with the Ministry of People’s Security, a national law enforcement agency. Strict criteria greatly reduce the number of women eligible to join this elite group as well–they must be over 163 centimeters tall and come from the right families. Han Seo-hee, 35, a North Korean defector to the South who was selected as a cheerleader herself 16 years ago, explained that on top of meeting the height and age standards, squad members must be “well assimilated to the North Korean regime” and “exemplars of working collectively.”
The presence of these captivating cheerleaders has produced both positive and negative reactions among those watching the Olympics. For some, the cheer squad represents North Korea’s hope for peaceful relations and a brotherly connection with South Korea. The appearance of athletes from the two Koreas under a shared Korean flag certainly exemplifies this side of the story. However, others call it a dangerous charm offensive and a way to push North Korea’s nuclear ambitions out of sight, out of mind, as well as an attempt to humanize the regime in the eyes of the public.
Regardless of the intentions behind this unusual display of a desire for unity by North Korea, the cheering squad has certainly contributed some spirit to the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
- Keh, Andrew. “A Night Out With North Korea’s Cheerleaders: Matching Snowsuits, Military Discipline and Chaperoned Bathroom Trips.” The New York Times. 12 February 2018.
- “North Korean cheerleaders: ‘army of beauties’ set to invade South for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.” South China Morning Post, International Edition. 11 January 2018.
- Parker, Ashley and Fifield, Anna. “Pence’s Olympic Mission: Countering North Korean Propaganda.” The Washington Post. 9 February 2018.