'Army of beauties' to conquer hearts in SK

With their good looks and sharp moves, North Korea's female cheerleaders are a marked contrast to the regime's menacing nuclear ambitions.

With their good looks and sharp moves, North Korea’s female cheerleaders are a marked contrast to the regime’s menacing nuclear ambitions.

Dubbed the “army of beauties” in South Korea, the young North Korean women — mostly in their late teens or early 20s — have attracted huge publicity whenever they have been sent to South Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s future wife Ri Sol Ju was among the group who attended the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon, South Korea.

The cheerleaders are set for their fourth appearance in the country after Pyongyang agreed this week to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Any North Korean delegations to its neighbour are carefully chosen by Pyongyang, and their movements are tightly controlled. According to reports, the Winter Olympics group could be accommodated on a cruise ship moored in Sokcho, South Korea, making it easier to monitor them.

An Chan Il, a defector researcher, said the cheerleaders are cherry-picked by the regime based on tough criteria. “They must be over 163 centimeters tall and come from good families,” An told reporters. “Those who play an instrument are from a band and others are mostly students at the elite Kim Il-Sung University.”

The Koreas’ separation makes citizens of the North an object of some fascination for South Koreans.

The cheerleaders made their first appearance at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, hitting the headlines when nearly 300 of them arrived on a ferry dressed in colorful hanboks — traditional Korean dresses — and waving so-called unification flags. Hundreds of Busan residents lined the port to greet them, with several homes also flying unification flags.

With their tight choreography — sometimes using props such as fans — the cheerleaders were lavished with attention as they sang and danced in the stands.

In 2005, former North Korean cheerleader Cho Myung Ae — whose good looks had gained her a huge following in the South — appeared in a television commercial for a Samsung mobile phone with South Korean pop star Lee Hyo-ri.

North Korea’s attendance is good news for the Pyeongchang Games organizers. “It will help with ticket sales,” said Pyeongchang Organizing Committee spokesman Sung Baik-you. “It will fulfil our desires for a peace Olympics.”

“A joint cheering squad would be phenomenal,” said Lee Sun-kyung, who previously organized a supporters group.

But North Korea’s presence also has potential to create some diplomatic headaches. There are concerns that South Koreans may not be as welcoming as in the past, given their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear program. And displaying the North Korean flag and playing its anthem are illegal in the South, where they are regarded as symbols of sedition under Seoul’s national security laws, hence the use of the unification flag at past inter-Korean matches.

When a North Korean flag was draped over a railing at a North-South football game during the 2014 Asian Games, it was removed by officials. The rule will not be enforced within the Olympic venues, where IOC protocol applies, but could become an issue elsewhere.

The two teams marched behind the unification flag when they entered the stadiums together for the opening ceremonies of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, and the 2006 Winter Games. But if they do so again at the opening ceremony on February 9, it would mean the South’s emblem would not appear on the stadium floor at its home Olympics. How could the South accept that reality, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper asked in an editorial Wednesday, having secured the Games “through tearful efforts after two failures.”

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