North’s ‘army of beau­ties’ re­veal cul­tural di­vide

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GANGNE­UNG — 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,” said Kim Mi- hyun, 59, 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,” said 30-year-old Lee Jung-hoon.

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 from their North­ern es­corts, al­ways mov­ing in groups in the pres­ence of a min­der and rarely con­vers­ing with South Kore­ans.

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

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

TEARS IN RAIN

The North­ern sup­port­ers’ ev­ery move is trailed by an army of South Korean jour­nal­ists, with some camp­ing out­side their ho­tel for pho­tos 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 the 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 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 tele­vi­sion com­mer­cial for a Sam­sung mo­bile phone with South Korean pop star Lee Hy­oRi.

Now, though, the cheer­lead­ers are part of a charm of­fen­sive by Py­ongyang aimed, an­a­lysts say, at eas­ing the mea­sures against it and try­ing to drive a wedge be­tween Seoul and its pro­tect­ing ally Wash­ing­ton.

At 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.

“I hope they come more of­ten,” said Kang Seok- joong, 61, adding the visit would bring the two coun­tries closer to­gether.

But Noh Se­ung- Hyuk, a 29-year-old of­fice worker in the stands, was dis­turbed by the North­ern­ers’ lock­step chore­og­ra­phy.

“Of course it is nice to see them but they give me the chills,” he said. “Hon­estly, they feel dis­tant.”

Many older South Kore­ans on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal di­vide har­bor a nos­tal­gic long­ing for some form of re­uni­fi­ca­tion — con­ser­va­tives through the North’s col­lapse and con­quest by the South, lib­er­als through a more am­i­ca­ble ar­range­ment.

But younger peo­ple have far less in­ter­est in uni­fi­ca­tion and fear its so­cial and eco­nomic con­se­quences.

A poll last year found al­most 50% of over-60s be­lieved the two Koreas can be re­uni­fied, while just 20.5% of those in their 20s agreed.

“We look the same but I feel bad be­cause they don’t have any free­dom,” said Kim Jung- ah, a 22-year-old stu­dent from Seoul at the match.

Her friend Lee Eun-mi added: “I think they are very dif­fer­ent, they are so ro­botic.”

As pop­u­lar girl group TWICE’s “Cheer up” blared from the loud­speak­ers across the arena, two young South Korean spec­ta­tors danced jovially.

The North Kore­ans paused — and be­gan bel­low­ing out a 600-year- old Korean folk song, wav­ing their uni­fi­ca­tion flags in syn­chro­nized moves.

“They are like the mil­i­tary, I pity them,” said Lee Min-woo, a 20-year-old stu­dent from Seoul.

“I haven’t given any thought to re­uni­fi­ca­tion.”

AFP

NORTH KOREAN cheer­lead­ers at­tend the women’s pre­lim­i­nary round ice hockey match be­tween Swe­den and Uni­fied Korea dur­ing the PyeongChang 2018 Win­ter Olympic Games at the Kwan­dong Hockey Cen­tre in Gangne­ung on Feb. 12.

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