PYEONGCHANG, Gangwon Province -- North Korea’s 229-woman cheerleading squad arrived in South Korea on Wednesday as part of the country’s delegation to the PyeongChang Olympic Games, sparking interest in the group’s activities for the next few weeks.
Referred to as Kim Jong-un’s “army of beauties,” the cheering squad is expected to root for its own national athletes, and possibly the South Korean national team. And it seems very likely the North’s cheerleaders will garner more attention than its athletes.
North Korea’s 229-member female cheerleading squad arrives in South Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Games on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
At the PyeongChang Olympics, 22 North Korean athletes are set to compete across five disciplines, including women’s hockey, figure skating, short track speedskating, cross country skiing and alpine skiing.
In the case of women’s ice hockey, North Korean athletes will compete on a joint team with the South, for the first-ever unified Olympics team for the two Koreas.
Previously, the Koreas formed a unified team during the World Table Tennis Championships and the FIFA World Youth Championship held in 1991.
This is not the first time for North Korea to send a cheering squad to attend an international sporting event in South Korea. The “beauty squads” have made their way to the South three times in the past to cheer on athletes.
It sent a 288-member delegation during the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, a 306-member team during the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and a 125-member team during the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
So, exactly who are these North Korean cheerleaders, how are they selected and what have they done at other international events?
According to testimonies from North Korean defectors cited in the local media, North Korea has tough standards for who can join the cheerleading team. The standards include looks, body shape, family background and loyalty to the regime.
North Korea reportedly prioritizes height, with only women taller than 165 centimeters able to join the squad. Those with exceptionally good looks but slightly below the 165-cm mark could make the cut, but those shorter than 160 cm would have no chance.
In addition, women with family members missing or living abroad do not qualify, as they could pose potential flight risks.
In the past, North Korea has selected members for its cheerleading squad from university students studying in Pyongyang, prioritizing those from institutions focused on music and dance.
During each visit, the North Korean cheerleaders have made headlines for their behavior, while certain members have risen to international stardom for their exceptional looks.
North Korean cheerleaders appear at the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu. (Yonhap)
During the Daegu Universiade in 2003, the North Korean cheerleading squad made headlines for extreme displays of loyalty to the regime.
While traveling on a bus, the group saw a banner with then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s picture hanging in the street in the rain. Many of them broke into tears and frantically ran to retrieve the banner from the rain, as they apparently could not allow their beloved leader to get wet.
Among members of the North Korean cheerleading squad to shoot to stardom is Ri Sol-ju, who is now the wife of Kim Jong-un.
She was one of the students in their teens and 20s who were sent to South Korea as part of North Korea’s 124-member cheerleading squad to the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
Ri, who was 16 at the time, garnered high popularity in South Korea and abroad for her looks, with experts speculating her stardom helped her land favor with North Korea’s elite, as well as Kim.
North Korea‘s 125-member cheerleading team attends the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon. (Yonhap)
Since the 2005 event, North Korea has not sent a cheerleading squad to South Korea. Pyongyang had initially announced plans to send one during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, but scrapped the plans weeks before the games.
And now North Korea has sent its fourth cheerleading delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics -- its first in 13 years -- raising expectations for new developments from the “army of beauties” hailing from the secluded country.
The PyeongChang Olympics will take place from Feb. 9-25 across PyeongChang, Gangneung and other areas of Gangwon Province. The opening ceremony will be held Friday at 8 p.m.
By Sohn Ji-young (firstname.lastname@example.org