Winter sports: South Korea gripped by 'ice queen' Kim Yu Na's romance

South Korea's Kim Yu Na at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb 20, 2014. As the two Koreas crossed diplomatic swords and military tensions simmered, South Koreans were focused on Thursday on one thing only - the love li
South Korea's Kim Yu Na at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on Feb 20, 2014. As the two Koreas crossed diplomatic swords and military tensions simmered, South Koreans were focused on Thursday on one thing only - the love life of their adored figure-skating heroine. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - As the two Koreas crossed diplomatic swords and military tensions simmered, South Koreans were focused on Thursday on one thing only - the love life of their adored figure-skating heroine, Kim Yu Na.

The news, backed by grainy paparazzi pictures of 23-year-old Kim arm-in-arm with a member of the national ice hockey team, led the bulletins on every TV channel and dominated news websites and chat forums.

Kim is far and away the most popular sports personality in South Korea, where she is known as "Queen Yu Na" and enjoys a passionate, devoted following among millions of people of all ages.

After controversial judging saw Kim, the defending Olympic champion, earning only silver at the Winter Games in Sochi, more than two million people - the vast majority South Koreans - signed a petition calling for a review of the result.

The pictures of her with Kim Won Jung, 29, were published on the tabloid website Dispatch, which has forged a reputation for exclusive paparazzi shots of Korean celebrities.

Kim Yu Na's agency All That Sports confirmed the two were a couple. "Most of what was reported is true, and (Kim Yu Na) is dating Kim Won Jung," it said in a brief statement.

The pictures, in which the couple are seen outdoors in shorts and T-shirts, were actually taken months ago, but Dispatch said it had withheld publication until after the Olympics for fear of having an impact on Kim's performance at the Games.

Dispatch said the two met in 2012 and began dating in August last year.

"From the beginning we set the date for the release of the photos sometime after the Olympics out of consideration for her," said Na Ji Yeon, one of the Dispatch reporters who worked on the story.

"So we decided to release the photos in March after all her professional activities were over," she told the YTN news channel.

Kim, who has made millions from highly lucrative endorsement contracts, announced her retirement from competitive skating after the Sochi Games.

Thursday's revelations took over the day's news agenda, crowding out inter-Korean tensions caused by ongoing South Korea-US military exercises and a series of North Korean missile and rocket tests.