The 300 statuesque beauties of the North Korean cheerleading squad bounded up the stairs of a soccer stadium here, prompting ecstatic applause from the South Korean crowd. Wearing outfits that were part Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, part Red Army, the women, who were handpicked and rigorously trained under the auspices of the North Korean government, strode to their places and flashed matching smiles.
Ignoring the field, where a North Korean soccer team was busy crushing Taiwan, the South Korean news media kept all cameras trained on the cheers. "What do we want?" the women, whose Stalinist homeland was separated from the South more than half a century ago, barked to the crowd. "Unification!" the South Korean fans shouted back with gusto.
Since the squad's arrival here at the 22nd annual Universiade games, an 11-day sports competition that ended Aug. 31, the well-scripted women have become South Korea's unlikely sweethearts -- and a symbol of the South's recent embrace of its old enemy. Even as North Korea squared off in a six-nation summit over its nuclear weapons program in Beijing last month, the cheerleaders, gushing with expressions of love for their "dear leader," Kim Jong Il, were winning the admiration of millions here through poignant TV coverage and adoring newspaper headlines. Smitten South Koreans traveled hundreds of miles to offer roses and serenades to the "Beauties from the North," as one headline called them.
"They give me chills of excitement," said Park Seung Jin, a 27-year-old restaurateur who came to the games just to see the women. "We are one nation divided by foreign powers. These women help us to see Korea as one. . . . North Korea is no longer my enemy. It is not South Korea's enemy either."
The mood during the games underscores a pivotal shift in thinking in South Korea, one with implications for future nuclear talks with North Korea and bearing on Seoul's traditionally close ties with the United States. Even as Pyongyang escalates its threat to become the world's newest nuclear power, South Koreans are making new strides in shedding their distrust of the North.
South Korean television, including state-owned and semiofficial channels, is portraying North Korea in an increasingly positive light; one recent program, for instance, favorably compared Pyongyang's state-run day care system with child care in the South. There has been a rise in the popularity of Internet chat rooms where South Korean youths share warm feelings about their North Korean counterparts on the other side of the most heavily militarized border in the world, according to political analysts who have studied the phenomenon. And a South Korean tour company is poised to start commercial flights to Pyongyang from Seoul for eager South Korean vacationers.
Meanwhile, South Korea's so-called 3-8-6 generation has become the nation's latest in-group. They are professionals in their thirties, who entered college in the 1980s, were born in the 1960s and participated in student movements opposed to right-wing regimes in the South. Today, many of them share more sympathetic views of the North and have risen to positions of influence here. For example, they make up the core of key advisers in the six-month-old administration of South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun.
"Our generation, born after the Korean War, is more interested in engaging North Korea, and in dealing with the issue of reunification seriously," said Yun Ho Jung, 39, a district leader in Roh's ruling Millennium Democratic Party. "We understand that the Bush administration is upset with the North Korean regime, but we still must think about how to we can push them in the right direction without an aggressive policy. Isolating them will get us nowhere."
The thaw in relations between Seoul and Pyongyang has its roots in the so-called sunshine policy of engagement with the North launched in 1998 by former South Korean president and Nobel Peace Prize-winner. Since then, hundreds of families on both sides were selected for reunions with kin who had ended up across the border when the Korean War was over. Millions of dollars in economic investment have been funneled from the rich South to the poor North.
"In the past, antagonism prevailed, but our policy toward North Korea has drastically changed," said Lee Soo Hyuck, South Korea's deputy foreign minister who headed the country's delegation to the nuclear talks between North Korea, the United States, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea last month. "That policy has been successful so far. The recent rise of [support for reunification] in South Korea is very natural after the collapse of the Cold War . . . but we are not pursuing this path blindly. . . . We are using it tactically and strategically" to open up the North.
A recent poll by the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper indicated that only 9 percent of South Koreans believed the North's nuclear threat should be considered a major government concern, while 61 percent favored continuing the sunshine policy.
"It disturbs me that North Korea is no longer seen as a threat to us by a certain percentage of the South Korean people," said Kim Kyong Won, who served as Seoul's ambassador to the United States during the 1980s. "The fact that they have a nuclear program is not sinking in. The danger we face from this is that we may be falsifying reality, thinking that our safety is assured. That weighs on the debate over the U.S. military presence. If the South Koreans perceive no threat, there may very well be more questions over whether the U.S. should be here at all."
Opposition leaders in the South say they are shocked by what they call public and official indulgence of the North. For instance, while the red carpet was rolled out for the North Korean cheerleaders, the South Korean government cracked down on anti-Pyongyang protests during the games in Daegu, the South's third largest city, about 200 miles southeast of Seoul.
Hundreds of South Korean riot police prevented a group of demonstrators from burning a North Korean flag in one of Seoul's main business districts Aug. 29. After the same group succeeded in burning the North's flag on Aug. 15, Roh apologized to the North.
A group of North Korean journalists physically assaulted a handful of protesters who were carrying banners insulting President Kim during the games. In response, Seoul again expressed regret, and labeled the protesters, some of whom had to be briefly hospitalized, provocateurs.
"The events of these games show us how much South Korea has changed," said Lee Hoon Koo, an expert on propaganda at Seoul's Yonsei University. "These women were clearly meant as psychological warfare -- Kim Jong Il's happy girls -- but we have people in the South going crazy over them. Our government apologized after North Koreans attacked demonstrators on our own soil. We've done an about-face in this country."
South Korean officials say they are simply staying in step with public opinion. Take the North Korean cheerleaders, whose trip was paid for by the South Korean government: They excited the crowds with a bizarre mix of scripted propaganda and old-fashioned, coquettish femininity. One minute they were shouting out one-word cheers such as "SKILL!" "TECHNIQUE!" "FOCUS!" and waving North Korean flags. The next, they were gracefully dancing with silk fans, swaying gently to popular North Korean songs.
Their team leader, an authoritative-looking young woman in a tight outfit, set the pace for the cheerleaders with her "spirit fingers." When her fingers wagged slowly, the women slowed their pace. When her fingers sped up, the squad whipped themselves into a cheering frenzy.
But they were emotional off the field as well. During the games, the women were shown on television overcome after passing a welcome poster hung by local residents that depicted the North Korean president shaking hands with former South Korean president Kim Dae Jung. The cheerleaders cried hysterically, insisting the poster was haphazardly mounted on street lights and hung too close to the ground. Pouring out of their bus, they ran a quarter of a mile to retrieve it. "How could you treat our dear leader this way?" one sobbed on camera.
The bewildered South Korean residents who had hung the banner expressed their regret to the girls. "We're sorry. . . . We didn't know they would feel this way. I guess we must recognize how different our two cultures still are," one resident said on local television.
Special correspondent Joohee Cho contributed to this report.