Photo Essay: North Korea’s Cheerleaders Win the Ice Hockey Game

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By a stroke of luck, I got my hands on a last-minute ticket to the very first ice hockey game played by the inter-Korean women’s team. On Feb. 10, the much-discussed team played — and lost — against Switzerland in Gangneung.

The joint-team was formed as a last-minute decision just a month before the Games, after North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-in announced in his New Year’s speech his willingness to send athletes to the Olympics.

This team is at the heart of the current inter-Korean debate. Are the players being used as political pawns in a fragile diplomatic game between Washington, Seoul and Pyongyang? Can they be positive catalysts for change? The photographs look nice, sure, creating an illusion of unity, but what will happen after the games?

Despite these questions, I felt buzzed by the atmosphere of unity present in the stadium. The North Korean cheerleaders, whom in another brilliant stroke of luck, I was seated next to, stole the game for me, and probably for many others.

Before the game started, a group of approximately 120 North Korean cheerleaders were already chanting songs and slogans with synchronized moves. Once, they each adorned the mask of a young man. Some media speculated the cheerleaders’ masks represented the young version of Kim Il-sung, the founder of North Korea and Kim Jong-un’s grandfather.

The Unification Ministry later stated that this was false; the mask was worn to inhabit a male persona when cheerleaders sang “Whistle,” a song whose lyrics are about a man’s unrequited love for his female neighbor.

Switzerland vs. the Koreas: The game started at approximately 9:10 p.m.

The game was held in the brand-new Kwandong Hockey Center, which has a capacity of 5,636 seats. The night’s event was completely sold out, although there were still some several hundred unoccupied seats in the upper rows.

Many of the spectators were waving South Korean taegugki flags as well as unification flags — which doesn’t have Dokdo, because it is a politically inflammatory issue, not just with Japan, but even between the two Koreas. Each Korea claims sovereignty over the rocky islands.

Throughout the match, the North Korean cheerleaders were showing their support while waving unification flags.

Kim Yo-jong (the younger sister of Kim Jong-un) and Kim Yong-nam (the ceremonial head of North Korea) were both present in the stadium, seated alongside South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. The three had met just earlier that day in the Blue House in Seoul, where Kim Yo-jong delivered her brother’s wish for a summit.

After the match, Kim Yong-nam, seen in the center of the picture above laughing with Moon, said, “I cried when I heard the [cheerleaders’] chants, ‘We are one.'”

“We are one!” the cheerleaders repeatedly chanted.

“Oneness” is a commonly used catchphrase when discussing inter-Korean unification, a catchphrase centered around old ideas about the “Korean race.” But how relevant is this idea in the 21st century, especially when most young Koreans don’t experience this so-called unity?

Each North Korean cheerleader carried a blue bag, marked by her name and carrying props — a unification flag, colored rackets, a loop made of plastic flowers, and that controversial mask. The bag was branded with the words “Naegohyang” (my hometown), a North Korean conglomerate that provides goods including cigarettes and sports clothing.

After the game, some spectators rushed to the empty VIP seats. This family here is posing with Moon Jae-in’s seat.

The inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team suffered an 8-0 defeat by Switzerland. As the game ended, the inter-Korean team posed for photos with President Moon, Kim Yong-nam, Kim Yo-jong and IOC President Thomas Bach. Then the team left the ice, seen smiling despite their loss.

 

Photos by Raphael Rashid for Korea Exposé.

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Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.