North Korean Cheerleaders, Marching Band, ‘Angel of Smile’ Ice Skater Invade Olympics

North Korea launched its Olympic “charm offensive” in earnest on Thursday with performances by cheerleaders and a mostly-female marching band, followed by an announcement that dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Yonhap News reports the squad of 229 cheerleaders and 80 members of the marching band performed at a welcome event in Gangneung, an athlete’s village near the Olympic city of Pyeongchang.

In Yonhap’s account of the event, the marching band was especially well-received:

Appearance-wise, the ladies appeared similarly to any other marching bands. Dressed in knee-high white boots and red uniforms, and rocking their hair in buns, the band played seven songs back-to-back with instruments ranging from brass and woodwind to percussion.

The medley commenced with “Nice To Meet You,” an iconic North Korean traditional number that is widely known to South Koreans, later followed by “Arirang,” a famous Korean folk song that will also be played during the joint entrance of the two Koreas at Friday’s opening ceremony.

Without any intervals or comments, the band continued with “Poongnyeonga,” “Song of the Sea” and “Ongheya.” Despite the limited space at the event, the ladies showed off some light choreography, walking around and moving their arms while playing their instruments. The band capped off the performance with “Kwaejina Ching Ching Nane” and “Youth Hymn.”

The performance is said to have made the “tense and rigid” North Korean athletes loosen up a bit. One volunteer at the Olympic village said the North Korean performance was the “most exciting of all the welcome events for the teams.”

The event was not open to the general public, but Getty Images provides some photos of the North Korean performance:

The white tiger is North Korea’s Olympic mascot, last seen gracing a pile of propaganda leaflets dropped in the mountains around Seoul by North Korean balloons earlier this week. The leaflets called on South Korea to reopen joint industrial and tourism projects with North Korea.

As for North Korea’s athletic contingent, only a pair of figure skaters actually managed to qualify for participation in the Winter Olympics on merit. The skaters, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, seemed noticeably more cheerful and relaxed than other North Koreans participating in the Winter Olympics, and were warmly applauded by South Korean spectators during practice sessions. South Korean media dubbed 19-year-old Ryom the “Angel of Smile” because she smiled and waved happily when she arrived at the Olympic village.

Twenty other athletes were granted special exemptions by the International Olympic Committee so they could participate, and a dozen North Koreans have been accepted into the South Korean women’s ice hockey team.

“Their participation is a potential publicity coup for Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, as it shifts attention away from his nuclear program and human rights abuses,” the New York Times observes.

“Just by participating in these high-profile games, North Korea comes across as far more empathetic,” Tufts University professor Lee Sung-yoon told the Times. “Because they are so poor and backward, we tend to be somewhat fascinated by any glimpse of North Koreans, and when they are working so hard you tend to root for them because they are such an underdog in so many ways.”

The NYT notes that South Korea’s government has a vested interest in helping the North Korean charm offensive succeed, since the administration of President Moon Jae-in has staked a good deal of its credibility on the new diplomatic opening with North Korea. A good number of South Koreans are not happy about the North’s participation in the Olympics or the special attention North Korea has received. The South Korean government will, therefore, probably discourage anything like a surprise athlete or cheerleader defection at the Games.

The South Korean government announced on Thursday that President Moon Jae-in will meet with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister Kim Yo-jong, the first member of the North Korean ruling family to visit South Korea since the Korean War, during the Olympic Games.

Moon will separately meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, who is expected to urge South Korea to resist the North Korean “charm offensive” and take a tougher stance against the Kim regime. North Korean officials said they would not seek a meeting with Pence during his visit.


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