Thu, Feb 15, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Pyongyang’s ‘army of beauties’ reveal cultural divide with South

By Sunghee Hwang  /  GANGNEUNG, South Korea

North Korea’s red-clad “army of beauties” cheerleaders are a key weapon in Pyongyang’s arsenal for its Winter Olympics charm offensive — but to some Southerners they illustrate the cultural divide across the Demilitarized Zone.

The 200-strong group — all in their late teens or early 20s and said to be handpicked from elite universities after strict background checks — chant “Cheer up” at events, clap and wave in unison and sing traditional songs.

The Koreas’ separation — which dates back nearly seven decades during which the two countries have followed radically different paths — makes citizens of the North an object of some fascination for South Koreans.

“They look just like us,” 59-year-old Kim Mi-hyun said, as the young North Koreans walked by in a neat double line on an excursion to a beach in Gangneung, the east coast city where the Winter Games ice events are being held.

“Looking at them makes me yearn for reunification,” she added, filming the sight on her smartphone.

Others were struck by their chunky trainers and white woolly hats.

“They look like Koreans from a long time ago,” 30-year-old Lee Jung-hoon said.

Younger South Koreans tend to be more wary of the North, having spent their adult lives in a culturally vibrant democracy regularly menaced and occasionally attacked by Pyongyang, which stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.

The cheerleaders are under tight surveillance by their escorts, always moving in groups in the presence of a minder and rarely conversing with South Koreans.

They said nothing in response to South Koreans’ calls of welcome at the beach, opting instead for a coy smile or friendly wave.

“They don’t speak,” 31-year-old Yoo Hong-sik said. “I think they received orders not to and that’s disappointing, because I would like to interact with them.”

The cheerleaders’ every move is trailed by an army of South Korean journalists, with some camping outside their hotel for photographs of the women going for a morning jog or ironing their clothes.

It is the fourth cross-border visit by a North Korean cheer group and the initial enthralment has changed over time as Pyongyang pursues its nuclear and missile ambitions, which have seen it subjected to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions.

Dubbed an “army of beauties” by the South’s media, there was so much interest in the squad sent for the 2003 Universiade in Daegu, South Korea, that the facility where they stayed was turned into a museum displaying personal items left behind — including unused tampons and empty toothpaste tubes.

On that trip, a tearful group of cheerleaders frantically ran off their bus to retrieve a banner of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-il that was getting wet in the rain.

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

However, now the cheerleaders are part of a charm offensive by Pyongyang aimed at easing the measures against it and trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and its protective ally Washington, analysts have said.

During the unified women’s ice hockey team’s 8-0 drubbing by Sweden on Monday — which guaranteed its elimination at the group stage — the cheerleaders chanted and waved in red, blue and white tracksuits.

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