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(Olympics) N. Korean charm offensive goes operational at PyeongChang Olympics

2018/02/08 15:51

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By Chang Dong-woo

GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- Many came to get a glimpse of the closely guarded athletes of the North Korean Olympic team Thursday. What they got instead was their first taste of the North's charm offensive at the imminent Winter Games.

An all-female North Korean cheerleader contingent that arrived in South Korea for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics officially launched its charm offensive campaign Thursday, performing in front of the international media at Gangneung Olympic Village.

On Wednesday, 229 North Korean cheerleaders crossed the heavily fortified border to the South to root for the country's Olympic squad during the Winter Games that open Friday. An 80-strong marching band within the contingent made its South Korean debut at a welcome event for the North's national team at the athletes' village in Gangneung, a sub-host city of the Olympics.

An all-female North Korean marching band arrives at PyeongChang Olympic Village in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 8, 2018. (Yonhap) An all-female North Korean marching band arrives at PyeongChang Olympic Village in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 8, 2018. (Yonhap)

The welcome event, thrown to all Olympic teams, is mostly ceremonial and routine, as many athletes have already settled in much earlier. If anything, they serve as photo ops or opportunities for reporters to speak to key athletes and officials of respective national teams.

But with North Korea's participation at the Olympics in the South drawing keen attention from the international community and media, hardly anything was routine at Thursday's event. The spotlight, normally reserved for athletes, was dominated by the marching band, comprised mostly of young ladies in their 20s, as they lightened up the initially tense and guarded atmosphere by its first-ever performance in the South.

Appearance-wise, the ladies appeared similarly to any other marching bands. Dressed in knee-high white boots and red uniforms, and rocking their hair in buns, the band played seven songs back-to-back with instruments ranging from brass and woodwind to percussion.

The medley commenced with "Nice To Meet You," an iconic North Korean traditional number that is widely known to South Koreans, later followed by "Arirang," a famous Korean folk song that will also be played during the joint entrance of the two Koreas at Friday's opening ceremony.

Without any intervals or comments, the band continued with "Poongnyeonga," "Song of the Sea" and "Ongheya." Despite the limited space at the event, the ladies showed off some light choreography, walking around and moving their arms while playing their instruments. The band capped off the performance with "Kwaejina Ching Ching Nane" and "Youth Hymn."

  

An all-female North Korean marching band is seen at a welcome event held for the North's Olympic squad at the Gangneung Olympic Village in Gangneung, a venue for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, on Feb. 8, 2018. (Yonhap) An all-female North Korean marching band is seen at a welcome event held for the North's Olympic squad at the Gangneung Olympic Village in Gangneung, a venue for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, on Feb. 8, 2018. (Yonhap)

Many volunteers and the venue's staff captured the rare moment with their smartphone cameras. The event was open only to those who have access to Olympic venues, hence difficult to get a read of the reaction by the general public. Still, the presence of the band was clearly felt among the North Korean athletes, who initially looked tense and rigid, even declining to dance together with South Korean dancers at the event, but later smiled and loosened up while the music played.

Some of those who watched the event in person noticed that the role of the cheerleading contingent might be more critical than one might imagine.

"I think it was the most exciting of all the welcome events for the teams. Honestly, it's hard to say that there were any performances by other teams that was noticeable to the degree of the North Koreans," said Lee So-yeon, a volunteer worker at the Gangneung Olympic Village.

"The idea of North Koreans traveling to the South, let alone competing at the Olympics, must be mind-boggling. Seeing how the athletes loosened up while the marching band performed made me realize the significance of the morale support," Lee said.

The North sent an average of 240 cheerleaders to three international sports events hosted by the South in the past -- the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon. Ri Sol-ju, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was later discovered to be one of cheerleaders at the 2005 event.

An all-female North Korean marching band performs at a welcome event for the North's Olympic squad at the Gangneung Olympic Village in Gangneung, a venue for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, on Feb. 8, 2018. (Yonhap) An all-female North Korean marching band performs at a welcome event for the North's Olympic squad at the Gangneung Olympic Village in Gangneung, a venue for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, on Feb. 8, 2018. (Yonhap)

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