- North Korea will be sending a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics, including its popular all-female cheer squad.
- A North Korea expert told Business Insider it would take months to prepare to send such a large group to South Korea.
- This indicates the North may have been waiting to reveal its intentions until its missile testing was completed so it could negotiate from a position of strength.
In historic talks with South Korea on Tuesday, North Korea agreed to send a delegation of not only athletes but also its popular all-female cheer squad to next month’s Winter Olympics.
The squad, which can include hundreds of members, has frequently attended international sporting events in the past.
But according to Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea expert at the Griffith Asia Institute and a research fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, these trips require months of preparation.
“It’s about preparing a group of young people to go into what North Korea sees as ideologically hostile territory and be on show for the world’s media and for the South Korean public,” Abrahamian told Business Insider. “They want to make sure they’re resistant to ideas and images that may impact how they see their own country or other countries. The more people you take, the more difficult it is.”
When it comes to the Winter Olympics, Abrahamian believes North Korea must have already conducted these preparations to be able to send such a large group to the games in February.
This would mean North Korea was planning its Olympic attendance long before its leader Kim Jong Un said he was “open to dialogue” about the event in his 2018 New Year’s Day address.
“I think they wanted to get their last big missile test done, so they could claim completion of their testing cycle and then begin a charm offensive,” Abrahamian said.
“Leaving it late, and correctly guessing that Seoul would be receptive to North Korean participation, also leaves less time for opposition to the plan to develop. Regardless, this participation isn’t a recent idea. I’m sure Pyongyang has been sitting on it for months.”
The cheer squad, with its several hundred members, will help magnify the size of North Korea’s Olympic contingent to observers. The only competitive athletes the country has announced are two figure skaters.
Cheer-squad members are picked for their appearance and ideology
North Korea’s cheer squad is made up of young women, usually about 20 years old, who are university students, enrolled in music school, or part of a propaganda squad.
There are clear criteria for squad members, Kim Gyeong-sung, the South Korean head of the Inter-Korean Athletic Exchange Association, told the BBC. These are “appearance” and having the right “ideology.”
Background checks are also carried out to ensure members don’t have any defectors or people with known pro-Japan views in their family.
The squad has performed in South Korea just three times, in 2002, 2003, and 2005.
In 2005, one of those cheerleaders in was Ri Sol-ju, who is now the wife of Kim Jong Un.
The North Koreans won’t be the only cheer squad in Pyeongchang, South Korea, next month. The US is also sending a cheerleading contingent.
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