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North Korean Figure Skaters Make Olympic Debut, To Cheers

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 12:08 pm

To the sound of an instrumental version of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" — and the coordinated chanting of North Korea's tightly controlled cheering squad — figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok, 19, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, took to the ice Wednesday in their Olympic debut.

The athletes earned a personal best in their short program and were well-received by the crowd in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The two skaters are the only North Korean athletes to have qualified for the Olympic Games through an international competition, even before a diplomatic agreement allowed for North Korean athletes to participate. (Ryom and Kim qualified at an event in Germany this past fall and were permitted to compete even though North Korea's Olympic Committee missed a registration deadline.)

Their score of 69.40 initially put them in second place, with more competition to come. They ultimately earned 11th place, good enough to earn them a slot in Thursday's long program — their real goal. Odds of a medal are approximately "zero," The New York Times reports.

"Speaking to reporters afterward, Ryom and Kim said they were honored to compete for their country," NPR's Elise Hu reports from Pyeongchang. "When a reporter noted many South Koreans cheered for them, Ryom said, 'It's clear we are one people.' "

The two athletes ignored some other questions from the international press.

"I wanted to ask how they chose a Beatles song, given that few North Koreans have heard of the Beatles," CNN's Will Ripley tweeted.

"The participation of North Korean athletes and cultural troupes in the Olympics has not been without controversy," the BBC notes, "as some critics question the North's commitment to reconciliation and others warn it will change nothing on the nuclear front."

Most North Koreans "are unable to leave the totalitarian country, but [Ryom and Kim] have competed around the world," Elise reported last month.

Pair figure skating has grown more popular in North Korea since Kim Jong Un became leader, Elise noted. But little is known about the pair's background:

" 'It's almost impossible for people outside the country to know how they grew up as athletes or about how the North Korean infrastructure is supporting the athletes,' says Seong Moon-jeong, a researcher who studies inter-Korean sports at South Korea's Institute of Sport Science and briefed South Korean diplomats ahead of the latest talks with North Koreans about the Olympics.

" 'Pair figure skating became huge in North Korea ever since Kim Jong Un came into power. In North Korea, the sports the leader is interested in get a lot of attention and support,' Seong says." ...

The regime will direct how much foreign exposure North Koreans will get at the Olympics. Historically, Pyongyang has used international showcases as propaganda opportunities.

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