North Korea’s squad of parka-wearing cheerleaders has grabbed early headlines at the PyeongChang Olympics as part of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s charm offensive.
North and South Korean athletes marched under a unification flag during the Opening Ceremonies. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s sister, had lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the executive Blue House. Kim Yo Jong invited Moon to visit North Korea after the Games.
The entire campaign, national security analysts have said, is aimed to drive a wedge between the United States and South Korea, as the North rushes to develop more sophisticated nuclear weapons.
That’s made the cheerleading squad’s high-stakes sideshow all the more intriguing in the Games’ early days. The group’s songs and dances have the hallmark of North Korean propaganda: over-choreographed to the point of lost authenticity.
Here are three clips of the North Korean’s performances from Day 2 of the Games and what exactly the group of young women, handpicked by the country’s government, are saying.
Thanks to Washington Post designer Joanne Lee (and her mom) and engineering director Sam Han for helping translate and providing some cultural context.
At the women’s ice hockey at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, North Koreans cheer: Go for it, go for it, our players, go for it! pic.twitter.com/ELTt4T7VXn
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) February 10, 2018
As Anna Fifield, The Post’s Tokyo bureau chief tweeted, the group is shouting, “Go for it, go for it, our players, go for it!” or, alternatively, “Victory! Our players, win! Win!”
That sounds pretty clunky, like something fans wouldn’t normally shout during a sporting event. But that’s just the direct translation. This is basically the same thing as American fans shouting, “Let’s go team!” or “Go, fight, win!” It’s just weird to see it shouted so relentlessly.
Dutch reporter Thomas Schuurman captured a longer clip of the same cheer:
— Thomas Schuurman (@ThomasSchuurman) February 10, 2018
Here, you can see more choreography and some extra “Lalalas” thrown in there, for good measure.
“Nice to meet you”
North Korean cheering squad is a well polished hype machine, getting a good reception from the crowd at short track speed skating pic.twitter.com/QWfXQsayz3
— Kim Brunhuber (@kimbrunhuber) February 10, 2018
The chorus here (transliteration: “ban gap seup nee da”) literally means “nice to meet you.” It’s part of a North Korean song performed during meetings between North and South Korean civilians. South Koreans have come to recognize the song as part of the North’s routine during cultural exchanges.
At an event like this, where North and South Koreans have been separated for so long — this is the first visit to the South for a member of the Kim family since war broke out in 1950 — the song takes on a deeper meaning, perhaps more like “We are really glad to meet you in person.”
Here’s another angle of the same chant (with Kanye West in the background) at the women’s hockey game between the unified Korean team and Switzerland. (The Swiss won, 8-0.) Notice the song is taking place while no one is on the ice.
North Korean cheering squad's first song "반갑습니다 Nice to meet you" pic.twitter.com/JSi29R8r6u
— Sohee Kim (@soheefication) February 10, 2018
“My home town”
This is one of the wildest things I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes!! A North Korean cheer sqaud at the Olympics pic.twitter.com/ijJysVGLXf
— Matt Stopera (@mattstopera) February 10, 2018
There’s a few things going on here, but the most noteworthy is the song the group is singing while the cheerleaders hold the Korean unification flag in front of their chests. It’s an old Korean folk song popular in both the North and South titled, “Spring season of my hometown.” It originated with Korean freedom fighters who fled to Manchuria and China during Japanese occupation before and during World War II. Here’s the translated first verse:
My home town that I lived in
Is a flower blooming mountainous place
With peach blossom flowers, apricot flowers and baby azaleas
Various palace of flowers in the neighborhood
I long for the time I played in that place
The chant afterward with all the clapping translates to “Our home country, unite!” It’s not a political cheer; they’re just trying to encourage teamwork. It would be like shouting at a basketball team, “Work together,” or, “Play as a team.”
Fifteen days remain in the Games for the North Koreans to pull out more cheers and keep drawing the eyes and ears of the world.
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