All eyes on Pyongyang's army of cheerleading beauties

The 229 North Korean cheerleaders, selected based on their looks, backgrounds and loyalty to the ruling party, arrived in the South last Wednesday.
The 229 North Korean cheerleaders, selected based on their looks, backgrounds and loyalty to the ruling party, arrived in the South last Wednesday.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
The 229 North Korean cheerleaders, selected based on their looks, backgrounds and loyalty to the ruling party, arrived in the South last Wednesday.
The 229 North Korean cheerleaders, selected based on their looks, backgrounds and loyalty to the ruling party, arrived in the South last Wednesday.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PYEONGCHANG • Dubbed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's "army of beauties", the more than 200 sharply dressed cheerleaders are likely to garner as much attention as athletes from the North, if not more.

The 229-strong women's cheerleading squad, decked out in expensive fur, smiled and posed for the media and onlookers last Wednesday upon arriving in South Korea for the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Even though this is not the first time North Korea is sending a cheering squad to attend an international sporting event in South Korea, their presence has created an online buzz.

"I don't want to say it, but North Korea's cheering squad is quite pretty. You can throw stones at me but the truth is the truth," said a South Korean on Twitter.

"I think they are very pretty," said a South Korean onlooker of the women who were part of a 280-member delegation which crossed the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas at a border post north of Seoul.

"I am happy to see you," said one cheerleader, beaming broadly but refusing to disclose their cheerleading routine. "You just wait. If I tell you now, it would be less exciting when you see it."

The "beauty squads" have made their way to the South three times in the past - a 288-member delegation during the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, a 306-member team during the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and a 125-member team during the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.

So who are these North Korean cheerleaders, and how are they selected?

The North has tough standards for who can join the cheerleading team, according to North Korean defectors cited in the local media.

They are screened for their family backgrounds, looks, skills and loyalty to the ruling Workers' Party.

Height is said to be a priority - the women need to be taller than 1.65m to join the squad. Those with exceptionally good looks but are slightly below the 1.65m mark could make the cut, but those shorter than 1.6m would have no chance.

In addition, women with family members missing or living abroad do not qualify, as they could pose potential flight risks.

North Korea selects members for its cheerleading squad from among university students studying in Pyongyang, preferring those from institutions focused on music and dance.

During the Daegu Universiade in 2003, the North Korean cheerleading squad made headlines for extreme displays of loyalty to the regime.

While travelling on a bus, the group saw a banner with then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's picture hanging in the street in the rain. Many of them broke into tears and frantically ran to retrieve the banner from the rain, as they apparently could not allow their beloved leader to get wet.

Several women from the various cheerleading squads have risen to stardom for their gorgeous looks.

Among them is Ms Ri Sol Ju, who is now the wife of leader Kim.

She was one of the students sent to Incheon as part of the North's cheerleading squad for the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships.

Ms Ri, who was 16 at the time, charmed the people in South Korea and abroad with her looks.

Since the 2005 event, North Korea has not sent a cheerleading squad to the South.

Pyongyang had initially announced plans to send one during the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, but scrapped the plans weeks before the Games.

Last week, North Korea sent its fourth cheerleading delegation - its first to the South in 13 years - to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 11, 2018, with the headline 'All eyes on Pyongyang's army of cheerleading beauties'. Print Edition | Subscribe