North Korea’s Ryom Tae Ok (left) and Kim Ju Sik compete in the pair skating short program of the figure skating event during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Gangneung Ice Arena on Wednesday.
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.
North Korean figure skaters revel in starring role on Olympic ice
The athletes earned a personal best in their short program and were well-received by the crowd in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
North Korea figure skaters delight crowds in Olympic debut
Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea react after their scores are posted following their performance in the pair figure skating short program on Wednesday. Bernat Armangue/AP hide caption
Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea react after their scores are posted following their performance in the pair figure skating short program on Wednesday.
The interaction is one of several visible moments of friendship between the North and South Korean athletes, who this year marched under a single “unification flag” at the Olympics opening ceremony.
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.’ “
Fab Phwoarr! North Korean figure skaters wow Pyeongchang with routine set to The Beatles and score personal best …
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.”
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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.
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” ‘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.
North Korean figure skating pair more than just a feel-good story
Welcome to NPR’s The Torch. See and hear all of NPR’s coverage of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Winter Olympics: North Korean skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik reach pairs final
GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Facing enormous pressure and scrutiny, North Korea’s only elite athletes at these Winter Olympics delivered the best performance of their career on Wednesday in pairs figure skating, helping to enliven a mostly subdued, half-empty arena.
The figure skaters originally qualified for the Olympics in September last year, but almost missed out on the Games when North Korea’s National Olympic Committee missed the deadline to register them, CNN reports.
The skaters, Ryom Tae-ok, 19, and Kim Ju-sik, 25, have zero chance for a medal. But that is not their measurement of success. Their aim was to finish in the top 16 among 22 pairs in the short program, enabling them to participate in the long program on Thursday. They accomplished their goal, finishing 11th in the short program with a personal best of 69.40 points from the judges.
North Korean figure skaters revel in starring role
Ryom and Kim come from the world’s most isolated nation, but, to a point, they appear open and expressive and embracing of outside influences. Their choice of music Wednesday was an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” as performed by the guitarist Jeff Beck, and the mostly somnolent crowd responded by clapping along during the song’s signature tempo change.
North Korean figure skaters look to show they belong in PyeongChang
“We could really feel the power and energy of the Korean people,” Kim said before the skaters hurried through an interview area without stopping. Still, they were clearly elated with their performance. Ryom jumped into her coach’s arms as she left the ice, and the pair stood and pumped their fists when their score was announced.
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The skaters are the only two of the 22 North Korean athletes here to have qualified for these Games by merit instead of wild-card entry. Advancing to the medal round confirmed their arrival here via skill instead of largess.
“They’re not even close to medal contenders,” said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent Canadian coach who has assisted the North Koreans over the last year. “But I’m so happy they’re here because they belong here. They’re a world-class level team.”
The notion that Ryom and Kim have achieved some international success as individuals “in some respects sits uncomfortably alongside our image of North Korea as the premier collectivist state in which the individual has no role or influence,” said John Nilsson-Wright, an East Asia specialist at Cambridge University and Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
“This question that many of us grapple with when we look at North Korea,” Nilsson-Wright said, “is to what extent as a sports person do you have the kind of autonomy and freedom and opportunity to express yourself as an individual in this very collectivist environment?”
South Koreans have expressed complicated feelings about North Korea’s participation in these Olympics. But individual North Korean athletes appear welcome — none more so than Ryom and Kim, who have been the subject of endless curiosity. Ryom, with her ever-ready smile and red wool coat, might have been the most photographed athlete arriving at the Games.
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Some have found in her a comparison to another North Korean visitor, Kim Yo-jong — the sister of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un — who attended the opening ceremony and charmed the South Korea news media without ever speaking in public.
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“North Korea will probably use the performance of the figure skaters to boast how much North Korea is getting international attention, just as Kim Yo-jong got the media following her and demonstrated to its people that North Korea has reached a certain status in the world,” said Kim Kyung-sung, the president of the South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association.
Hey! Sam Manchester here, deputy sports editor. Let me be your personal guide to the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.
At practice on Tuesday, South Korean fans paid nearly $30 and filled the lower section of the Olympic ice arena, taking pictures with their smartphones and oohing, aahing and clapping as Ryom and Kim rehearsed their jumps, spins and lifts.
“I hope they will connect us together,” said Cho Da-in, 20, a student who also had a ticket to Wednesday’s short program. “We are one blood.”
Half an hour before Wednesday’s competition began, a North Korean news media contingent arrived, followed by a group of cheerleaders in their familiar red outfits, waving reunification flags.
When the pair took the ice to warm up, the cheerleaders waved North Korean flags. A group of fans chanted the skaters’ names and held up a banner acknowledging them, while bearing another sign that said, “Because One Korea.”
Han Mahn-chul, 59, a spectator and an engineering researcher from Seoul, the South Korean capital, said he was impressed that the North Koreans had qualified for the Games in a sport like figure skating. “It is kind of a sport that advanced countries excel at,” Han said. “That is the image it has. So the fact that a poor country like North Korea has good skaters is amazing.”
Ryom and Kim are under tight control. When they arrive by bus at the Olympic arena, a security detail flanks them, standing arm to arm, as they enter the building. But unlike the country’s cheerleaders, they are not being kept totally apart from outsiders.
“There have been no inconveniences whatsoever, when it comes to life in the South area,” Kim, who with Ryom is competing for the first time in South Korea, said on Wednesday.
Around other skaters, Ryom and Kim have shown a playful side. Recently, in a waiting room before practice, the North Koreans and their coach rolled their gloves into a ball and played an impromptu game of soccer to get their bodies limber.
On Feb. 2, when Ryom celebrated her birthday, Kim Kyu-eun, a South Korean Olympic pairs skater, gave her a gift of cosmetics. The North and South Koreans trained together last summer with Marcotte in Montreal, alongside pairs teams from Canada and the United States.
Kim Hyon-son, the North Koreans’ primary coach, cooked kimchi for the South Koreans in Montreal. And Meagan Duhamel, a two-time world champion pairs skater and Marcotte’s wife, took the North Koreans shopping.
“Everyone is really supportive of them,” said Alex Kam, the South Korean skating partner of Kim Kyu-eun. “It’s good to see how sports brings everyone together without boundaries.”
In their few international competitions, Ryom and Kim have remained assured and composed, as they were on Wednesday. They finished 15th at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships.
Last September, they were self-possessed, if not flawless, in qualifying for the Olympics at a competition in Germany. There they traveled without security and sometimes left the rink unaccompanied by their coach or a team official.
In a sport that forbids political displays, Ryom and Kim on Wednesday did not wear pins commonly worn by North Koreans, depicting the former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father of the current leader.
Both skaters are listed on their official bios as students. They live in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where the more privileged citizens live. At the qualifying event in Germany, Ryom declared, “I want to continue to improve until I become world champion.”
There is considerable room for improvement. For one thing, the North Koreans, who seldom compete abroad, have found it challenging to train with three other Olympic pairs on the ice at the same time. There have been a number of near collisions.
“One of the questions they ask me is, ‘What can we do to get better?’” Marcotte, the coach, said. “My first answer is, they need to compete more often. The more they are exposed to competition, they will understand what they need to get their scores better and the more familiar they will be to the judges.”
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