North Korea’s cheerleaders serenaded South Korean fans with tender love songs Saturday as a joint Korean ice hockey team’s emotional Olympic debut ended in tears before the sister of Kim Jong Un. The first Kim dynasty member to visit the south since the 1950-53 Korean War, Kim Yo Jong sat alongside South Korean President Moon Jae-in to watch the Koreans suffer an 8-0 shutout by Switzerland in Pyeongchang.
However, the result mattered less than the political symbolism as around 200 of North Korea’s famed “army of beauties” charmed a crowd of 3,600 besotted locals with nostalgic oldies – and even broke out a Mexican wave.
The powerful Kim sister also attended Friday’s opening ceremony, but before the hockey match there were none of the flag-burning protests over the North’s Olympic presence that had marked the previous few days. Outside, many locals wore the joint team’s jersey with “KOREA” emblazoned across their chests and waved mini unification flags – a pale blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula.
After delivering an invitation for Moon to visit Pyongyang earlier on Saturday, Kim arrived dressed in a black fur-collared coat and took her seat next to North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam, with Olympic chief Thomas Bach also present.
The Kim sister put her hands to her mouth early in the match when North Korean forward Jong Su Hyon went close. But a first-period treble from Alina Muller set the tone and effectively dashed any hopes of a homemade fairytale.
“The chemistry on the team is better than I ever predicted,” said Korea coach Sarah Murray, brushing off the heavy defeat. “They laugh together, they hang out together, they eat meals together. I walk into the locker room and you can’t tell who is from the North and who is from the South. They’re just girls playing hockey.”
Decked out in red tracksuits and woolly hats, North Korea’s cheerleaders sang “uri nun, hana da” (we are one) and clapped in perfect unison as local hip hop artists rapped on a stage behind them and K-Pop blared over the loudspeakers in a stark clash of cultures.
Local fans took pictures of the cheerleaders, who smiled for the cameras before unfurling a unification flag at the final buzzer.
Moments later, Kim Yo Jong approached the ice with the other dignitaries to applaud the Korean players and take part in a group photo. The players shook hands with South Korean President Moon but Kim did not offer her hand.
“(President Moon) said a lot of nice things,” said goalie Shin So-jung after the game. “Like that we have come a long way and that we should be proud of ourselves because we have written history.”
Meanwhile the cheerleaders continued to chant long after the rest of the arena had emptied. The troupe, cheered by dozens of fans as their bus pulled up under tight security before the game, have been dispatched south as part of a North Korean charm offensive after months of fiery rhetoric threatening nuclear war and provocative missile tests.
The ladies, all in their late teens or early 20s, are said to be handpicked from elite universities and undergo strict background checks.
Its most famous alumna is Ri Sol Ju, better known these days as the First Lady of North Korea. The North only agreed last month to attend its first Olympics in the South, but each time Pyongyang considers sending a delegation to a sporting event in South Korea drama often seems to follow.
At the 2003 University Games in Taegu, accusations that local right-wing groups had “ransacked” bedrooms and stolen underwear at the North Korean delegation’s hotel prompted the cheerleaders to down pom-poms in protest.
North and South Korea have shared a heavily fortified border since the Korean War ended in a ceasefire, not a peace treaty.
-Inputs from AFP