Though they are not competing in the games themselves, 229 North Korean cheerleaders, who some have dubbed the “Army of Beauties,” are already stealing the show at the women’s ice hockey game where Switzerland beat the Korean unification team 8-0.
The cheerleaders are part of North Korea’s sophisticated propaganda efforts and are deployed to humanize the secretive North Korean regime. And, according to some American national security analysts, the goal of the North Korean presence at the Olympics is to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea. The cheerleaders are kind of meant to be a distraction.
And, given the attention that they’ve garnered, from their arrival in South Korea in matching dark red coats trimmed with fur and black boots, to their coordinated song and dance routine on all four sides of the rink at Saturday’s ice hockey game, that propaganda is working.
They are hand-chosen to appear at the Olympics for their beauty and their loyalty to the state. According to Kim Gyeong-sung, the head of an inter-Korean civil sports exchange body, the cheerleaders are all around 20 years old and chosen from among the ranks of university and music school students, as well as North Korea’s propaganda squad.
All of them come from good families, but rarely high-ranking ones, and their backgrounds are scrutinized for connections to the Japanese or defectors. Additionally, all of them must be over 5-foot-3 inches, according to North Korean defector Ahn Chan-il, who now runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies.
And their performances have high stakes for their families and villages back home. Ri Sol-ju was a cheerleader at the Asian Athletics Championships in 2005 at only 16 and, a few years later, became North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s wife. Another former cheerleader, Cho Myung-ae, who gained a following in the south for her beauty, even starred in a Samsung commercial with K-pop star Lee Hyori.
On the other hand, 21 of her fellow cheerleaders were banished to labor camps for speaking too positively of life in South Korea upon their return.
“It will help with ticket sales,” said Pyeongchang Organizing Committee spokesman Sung Baik-you of their presence, before adding, “It will fulfill our desires for a peace Olympics.”
Hopefully, the cost of that “peace Olympics” will not include more cheerleaders being banished to labor camps after this year’s performances.