Figure skating: North Korean skaters say they'll treat Winter Olympics just like any other competition

Ryom Tae Ok (left) and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea perform during the pairs free skating program at the ISU Four Continents figure skating championships in Taipei on Jan 26, 2018.
Ryom Tae Ok (left) and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea perform during the pairs free skating program at the ISU Four Continents figure skating championships in Taipei on Jan 26, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

TAIPEI (REUTERS) - North Korea's top figure skating pair took bronze in a competition in Taipei on Friday (Jan 26) and opened a window on what life is like for sports people in the world's most isolated country as they head for next month's Winter Olympics in the rich, democratic South.

Fans cheered as Kim Ju Sik, 25, and Ryom Tae Ok, 18, performed at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taiwan's capital, dressed in black outfits with flashes of silver. The crowds clapped whenever they jumped gracefully to a French song playing in the background.

"Our practice is very free. As we said, the three hours that we practise can be slightly more or less. Our government really supports us, so we can pay full attention to our skating," Kim told reporters after the performance.

The pair are expected to compete at next month's Winter Olympics in the South Korean mountain resort of Pyeongchang, although Ryom said they treat every competition the same.

"Every competition is important for us, so even though we will attend the Olympics, we put our full effort into every competition," she said.

"To participate in the Olympics, we will still use our usual training. We just hope that we can increase our points and do well. We haven't thought about the medals, we just want to go according to our practice and perform better and better," Kim added.

First and second place at the figure skating competition for the pairs category went to the United States' Tarah Kayne and Danny O'Shea, and Ashley Cain and Timothy Leduc respectively.

Most North Koreans are unable to leave their country, where behind the displays of military pomp lies an impoverished state from which hundreds of people try to flee each year, sometimes through dangerous routes dotted with landmines.

North Korea will send 22 athletes to the Winter Games next month and compete in three sports and five disciplines, the International Olympic Committee said last Saturday.

North Korea's planned involvement in Pyeongchang is viewed as a sign of easing tensions over its nuclear and missile programmes, which it pursues in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions.

North and South Korea remain technically at war after their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. Tensions escalated dramatically last year as the regime of Kim Jong Un stepped up its programme aimed at developing a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the United States.