One of the weirdest spectacles at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang is a train of 229 young, female cheerleaders from the hermetically sealed dictatorship of North Korea. They’re impeccably, if somewhat oddly, dressed in matching outfits. The cameras can’t get enough of them. And critics grumble that they’re lending charm to a repressive regime.
Here’s what to know:
Chosen for looks and loyalty
Little is known about the North Korean cheerleaders, but defectors from the world’s most secretive nation have said they’re drawn from elite families closely tied into the ruling class. Often called North Korea’s “army of beauties,” they must be at least 5’3” tall and in their early twenties, according to a report in The New York Times. In the past, the squad even included Ri Sol Ju, the wife-to-be of President Kim Jong-un.
Isolated and closely guarded
For the duration of the Winter Olympics, the North Korean cheerleaders are staying in an isolated resort an hour and a half from PyeongChang, according to the Times report. They ride to Winter Olympics events in eight buses with a police escort and are chaperoned by minders who prevent contact with strangers and of course the unthinkable: defection. They enter and exit Olympic venues with military precision, and their restroom breaks happen in groups.
Getting more buzz than most athletes
The North Korean cheerleaders are the “stars of the Olympics,” joked Jimmy Kimmel on Monday night, before asking his audience to try to mimic their swaying and singing. He wasn’t exactly wrong. The North Korean women have been mobbed by media wherever they go, including a trip to a South Korean beach on Tuesday where hundreds of reporters descended for a glimpse, according to a report by ABC, keeping about 1,000 police, security agents and minders busy. But North Korea’s charm offensive isn’t popular with everyone. Vice President Mike Pence complained that North Korea was trying to “hijack” the Olympics with its performances and shows of unity with South Korea.
Sentimental cheers and odd outfits
They’ve been singing old Korean folk songs and unity chants meant to appeal to South Koreans, with whom their country is technically still at war. On the other hand, their outfits, which have been compared to those of golf caddies or singing-telegram performers, will appeal to fans of kitsch.
On Tuesday evening (Wednesday morning in Korea), as the North Korean figure-skating pair Kim Ju-sik and Rom Tae-ok took the ice, the cheerleaders dominated one end of the arena in a sea of matching red snow jackets and pants and white knit caps with red trim, according to TIME.
They’re not the only cheerleaders in PyeongChang this month, either. The University of Kentucky cheer squad is representing the United States in a series of exhibitions with cheerleaders from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands, organized by the International Cheer Union. There were no plans to include the North Korean cheerleaders.
Don’t try to follow them
Performing only when the regime of Kim Jong-un dictates, the North Korean cheerleaders aren’t easy to follow. Like almost everyone else in North Korea, they don’t do social media (which is forbidden), and except for rare international events, few outside of North Korea ever see them. Once the Winter Olympics closing ceremony ends, they will march in orderly lines onto their buses and disappear across the world’s most heavily fortified border.