Training is underway for North Korea’s new cheering squad for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Girls hoping to make the team not only need to meet aptitude requirements, but must also pay bribes to officials in order to stand a chance at selection. North Korea has in the past use cheer squads as a key propaganda tool during international sporting events.
“Materials related to the selection of the cheering squad were already published internally by the end of last year. The announcement of the official decision to participate in the Olympics was made through the state-run media on January 10, and full-scale training and education is underway at recreation centers across Pyongyang,” a source in the North Korean capital reported to Daily NK on January 11.
“People are expected to tune into television and radio broadcasts (in North Korea) as the authorities have announced their intention to broadcast events involving both North Korean athletes as well as the dance routines and other activities of the cheerleading squad.” The authorities will likely try to paint a picture of global interest in the North, in an attempt to inspire national unity. In addition to the domestic audience, the routines are also created with an international audience in mind.
Propaganda targeting an international audience
An appearance at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics would be the squad’s first in 13 years. Prior teams have performed in South Korea three times: at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu, and at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
The regime selects those they judge to be young and attractive women to make up the cheer squad, which has increased in both talent and popularity over the years. It has also been discovered that Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju, who attended the Kumsong School (which the government uses primarily as a recruiting ground for talented young students), was also a member of the cheering squad in the past.
The authorities are recruiting students from the Kumsong School and the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts this time as well, reported the source. As the first squad to appear at an international event in the Kim Jong Un era, they will be expected to portray North Korea as a “strong, nuclear power.”
“The lessons now being taught to the prospective team members are centered on ‘showing off our strong nuclear republic through the power of culture.’ They will try to show how international sanctions are hurting the ordinary people of North Korea, and try to influence public opinion in the countries that are participating in the sanctions regime,” the source said.
He emphasized that their sights will be keenly set on the South Korean audience, hoping to capture their emotions with a friendly new image.
“I am hearing that they will freshen up the routine and try to match the dancing style of South Korean K-pop girl groups. But they will convey North Korean arts and culture in their performances, primarily with the international audience in mind,” he added.
Fierce competition to make the final cut as applicants await selection results
According to an additional source in Pyongyang, the final selection for those going to Pyeongchang will be announced towards the end of January. The regime prefers girls that are between 165 and 170 cm tall, meaning that even if someone displays extraordinary skills, they will not be selected if they fail to meet the height requirements.
The authorities also pay special attention to the songbun (political class based on family background) of all applicants, as they must ensure that no defections to South Korea occur during their time there. The source noted that the squad members must not have any ‘problematic’ family members to the 8th degree in order to qualify, which includes defectors and other social classes that the regime does not trust. Officials are now meticulously scrutinizing the ideological purity of applicants and their family members.
“Most of them will not have any problem qualifying in terms of their songbun because they already come from prestigious schools like the Kumsong School, and competition is quite close in terms of skills as well. So the girls with money will be the successful ones. Whoever is able to provide the largest bribes to the central government agency in charge of the selection (the Youth Enterprise Department) will see their names on the final list,” the additional source said.
A former North Korean athlete who came to the South in 2010 named Kim Won (alias) said that his daughter attended the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts and was extremely talented. However, when she applied to join the cheer squad, “she was out competed by girls with anti-Japanese fighters in their family history.” Kim added that “athletes also long to visit the South, but no matter if a person is an athlete or a cheer squad member, they need money (to pay bribes) to make it.”