Were North Korea held to usual standard, it would have exactly zero Olympians competing in PyeongChang this winter. The state failed to register the only two North Koreans who qualified for the Winter Olympics — the pair figure skaters, Kim Ju-sik, 25, and Ryom Tae-ok, 18 — by the deadline. The International Olympic Committee made an exception. Twenty-two North Korean athletes were later admitted as “wild card” entries: six skiers, four skaters, 12 women’s hockey players.
These athletes are simultaneously irrelevant in the context of the broader Olympics — none are expected to place — and critical to its success. The athletes are the chip that delivers the dip of diplomatic possibility.
They also provide the striking North Korean cheerleading squad, known in the West as the “Army of Beauties,” with something to cheer for. The squad has come not to perform a floor routine, but to colorfully support their country’s players from the stands.
The cheerleaders are a group of 230 young women who have been hand-chosen for their beauty, their family background and their loyalty to the state (each is subjected to a background check that looks for connections to defectors or Japanese sympathizers). Each of the cheerleader’s performances can bring social reward or ruin upon their return home.
Ri Sol-ju, Kim Jong-un’s wife, was a cheerleader at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championship in Incheon, South Korea; they were married several years later. Meanwhile, 21 of Ri’s fellow cheerleaders were banished to prison camps for talking about the enjoyable life they’d seen in South Korea. It was their third performance in South Korea; the squad has not returned since.
North Korea is famous for its large-scale coordinated performances, perhaps best exemplified by its Arirang Festival mass games, a testament to the power of North Korean iconography and the ability of its performers. As such, the cheer squad — whether waving unity flags, gold-cymbaled tambourines, or flower-shaped megaphones— has captivated viewers internationally. “It will help with ticket sales,” Pyeongchang Organizing Committee spokesman Sung Baik-you said of their attendance in January. “It will fulfill our desires for a peace Olympics.”
The cheerleaders dress identically. At the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea, they arrived in brightly-colored hanboks (traditional, festive Korean dresses) and wove pale blue and white unification flags. They have worn all-white sportswear (baseball caps, white t-shirt, pants) while holding blue and red accordion paper balls. They arrived in Pyongyang in maroon knee-length coats with fur-trimmed sleeves, collars, and hats (their luggage, naturally, matched). Today, the bench squads wore warm red outfits with red-and-white hats while a handful of dancers wore green-and-yellow robes or all-white athletic outfits.
Like the Rockettes, the cheerleaders present a measure of femininity that is totally ordered, consistent, and organized. Their act exists outside of the circumstances that command it; their volume and performance, whether swaying with flags while singing, clapping rhythmically, or chanting, has little to do with what is happening on the ice. (As the unified hockey team lost 8-0 to Switzerland, they simply ran through their choreographed performances.) The four sections of cheerleaders—two facing each other across the rink, two in the top sections—commanded attention with the consistency of the performance. Their choreography is excellent, their outfits charming, the entire exercise entirely beside the point.