Why North Korean cheerleaders may soon descend on the South


North Korea's cheering squad members cheer their Universiade team at the Jinho Archery Court near Daegu, South Korea, on Aug. 28, 2003. (Yun Jai-hyoung/AP)

When you think of North Korea, "cheerleaders" may not be the first thing that springs to mind. The Hermit Kingdom is perhaps better known for less savory things like gulag-like labor camps and leadership purges. But the news that Pyongyang plans to send a "cheerleading squad" to the South Korean city of Incheon for the upcoming Asian Games is not just a surprising and weird news story – it may actually be quite an important political sign.

The cheerleading squad's proposed visit was first announced in a report from KCNA, North Korea's official news agency. "It is necessary to put an end to all kinds of calumnies and vituperation that foster misunderstanding and distrust among the fellow countrymen," the report read, according to Reuters. "We have decided to dispatch a cheer-leading squad along with the athletes to the 17th Asian Games in order to improve relationships between the North and the South and to create an atmosphere of national reconciliation."

North Korea sent hundreds of cheerleaders to the South for sporting events in 2002, 2003 and 2005, and the synchronized dancers drew positive responses from South Korean crowds who reportedly called them an “army of beauties." However, the dancers have not been sent south in almost a decade, and in 2006 there were reports that some of those cheerleaders had been imprisoned for talking about their experiences abroad upon their return.

So what's changed? Well, the latest announcement comes as Pyongyang appears to be extending an olive branch to Seoul after a period in which relations had been frayed by missile launches and violent rhetoric. The top story on the KCNA Web site Monday is a statement that calls for "ending confrontation and improving North-South ties," arguing that "South Korean authorities should discard the anachronistic concept of hostility." A number of other stories carried by the news agency push a similar sentiment.

It's certainly possible that North Korea is making a cynical charm offensive to be used as leverage, Adam Cathcart, editor in chief of North Korea-watching Website Sino-NK says, although this does really appear to be a sign that the softer tone North Korea had adopted toward the South at the start of 2014 may be returning. "Any time you have North Koreans agreeing to send an official delegation of their own people to South Korea for any reason, it is a big deal," Cathcart said in an e-mail.

There's also another big event looming that Kim may want a piece of, Cathcart notes: the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, due to be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. North Korea has clearly been promoting its own winter sports resorts recently, and may even be hoping to co-host some events. "That will be good for his prestige and would feed into this notion he's promoting internally of North Korea's international importance," Cathcart points out. The move also carries the distinctive fingerprints of Kim Jong-un, the young leader of North Korea, who has shown a fondness for sporting diplomacy (Dennis Rodman's trips being another obvious example). Kim's own wife, Ri Sol Ju, was one of the performers sent to South Korea in 2005, and may have had a word in her husband's ear promoting the trip.

All in all, sporting events may have been a rare bright spot in recent North-South Korean relations. And while it may be tempting to chuckle at the idea of North Korean cheerleaders descending on South Korea, it might be something we should support.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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