The North Korean cheerleading team has been grabbing a lot of headlines at the Winter Olympics 2018.
The matching uniforms and perfectly timed dancing of some of the 230 strong all-female squad stole the show as they cheered on the unified Korean hockey team on Monday.
They were also said to be the only show on offer at the women’s slalom event last night – which was eventually called off due to bad weather.
High winds wreaked havoc on the Alpine skiing schedule, but that didn’t stop the cheerleaders – dressed in identical red ski jackets and white and red hats – from shouting ‘we are one’ long after the decision was made to postpone.
But after months of high tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme and secrecy surrounding the hermit nation’s brutal regime and prison camps, the appearance of the smiling cheerleaders has been labelled by some as a ‘charm offensive’ and a deliberate distraction.
The cheerleaders are under tight control and monitored 24/7 by older male minders.
They are reportedly even supervised when they go to the toilet and eat breakfast – not making a move without at least one other North Korean teammate with them as well as a South Korean government monitor.
It means their every move is attracting avid attention.
Pyongyang dispatched the cheerleaders to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics as part of their last-minute delegation, and the squad outnumbers the country’s athletes by roughly 10 to one.
Their synchronised singing, dancing and chanting – as well as matching costume changes made in unison – is followed by precision entering and exiting of the arenas.
Minders shield them from interacting with strangers at the Games and they are escorted by police to and from their amccomodation at a remote resort around an hour and a half from the main stadiums to the Inje Speedium, a racetrack complex in Inje County, along the foothills of Mount Sorak.
The cheer squad is occupying 108 apartments there, with two people sharing a room in most cases, according to Kim Tae-eun, a spokesman for the Inje Speedium. There are reportedly 21 North Korean reporters staying in rooms there, too.
When the cheerleaders eat they must travel to an adjacent hotel, about 100 meters from their accommodation, in staggered groups of 30 or so, with two older male chaperones.
Much like their public appearances, it is understood they enter and leave the dining area in double-file lines for the two-minute walk back to their rooms.
For all their raucous chanting at the hockey, where the unified Korean team lost to Switzerland, they were also described at times as seeming indifferent or oblivious to their surroundings.
At one point during the match, an American man proposed to his girlfriend on the arena’s video board to huge cheers and applause.
The whole time, the cheerleaders remained staring straight ahead and continued to chant ‘we are one’.
When the song Girlfriend by Avril Lavigne was played out on loudspeakers at the stadium, the North Korean cheerleaders swayed, clapped and sang their own song to a completely different beat.
Han Seo-hee, 35, a North Korean defector to the South and a former cheerleader said squad members had been hand-picked.
‘Those who are well assimilated to the North Korean regime, those who are exemplars of working collectively, those who are from the right families, and of course those who meet the height and age standards’ would be selected, she said.
They would not be paid for the trip, Han added.
But it seems the appearance of the cheerleaders at the Olympics has split opinion among spectators with thoughts turning to reunification of North and South Korea.
‘They don’t speak,’ said Yoo Hong-sik, 31, who had travelled to the Games from Daejeon. ‘I think they received orders not to and that’s disappointing because I would like to interact with them.’
Another spectactor, Kim Jung-ah, 22, from Seoul, said: ‘We look the same but I feel bad because they don’t have any freedom.
Lee Min-woo, 20, also a student from Seoul, told the South China Morning Post: ‘They are like the military, I pity them. I haven’t given any thought to reunification.’