North Korean skaters set to be a hit in Pyeongchang

Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea performing during the pairs short programme of the Nebelhorn Trophy figure skating competition in Oberstdorf, Germany last September.
Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea performing during the pairs short programme of the Nebelhorn Trophy figure skating competition in Oberstdorf, Germany last September.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea are not expected to win a medal in pairs figure skating at next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea.

But few athletes may have a more impactful presence at the Games, which are being promoted as a chance to ease political and nuclear tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula after North Korea announced on Tuesday that it would participate in the event in Pyeongchang.

The pairs team, who finished 15th at the World Figure Skating Championships last year, are expected to represent the height of sporting aspirations for North Korea.

More North Korean athletes may yet compete, particularly after South Korea proposed that they join them in fielding a unified women's hockey team.

But Ryom, who will turn 19 just days before the start of the Olympics, and Kim, 25, are the only ones who have qualified.

They are the lone elite, world-class winter athletes from the isolated nation, who have won only two medals at the Winter Games - a silver and bronze in speedskating - the last coming in 1992.

And they have plenty of admirers among the figure skating fraternity.

NOTHING BUT THE BEST

I want to continue to improve until I become world champion.

RYOM TAE OK, North Korean figure skater, telling reporters her ambition.

"They are so charismatic; I know the crowd would fall for them with their smile and passion and love of skating," Bruno Marcotte, a Canadian pairs coach who worked with the duo last summer in Montreal and during an Olympic qualifying competition in Germany last September, said. "I feel they'll be a crowd favourite."

He also revealed to CNN that when the pair went to Montreal for training, he had to make all arrangements for them. "They don't have a credit card. So they cannot just book a hotel," he said.

Ryom lists her interests online as music, dance and reading; Kim likes football, reading and music.

But, besides all that, the Winter Games debutants have only one thing on their minds.

"Their goal - all we talked about - is how they can get their score higher," Marcotte added.

"And they want to take one step at a time. You know, the next goal is to finish in the top five at Worlds.

"The only thing we talk about is how they can progress in the world rankings."

Their most notable success was in August 2016 when they won the pairs gold at the Asian Figure Skating Trophy in Manila.

Following that, they won the pairs bronze at the Asian Winter Games in Sapporo last year, but finished 15th at the World Championships in Helsinki.

Purely in skating terms, Marcotte said, the North Koreans appear to be mirroring the Chinese model of attempting to build pairs teams to an elite international level.

At the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics, Chinese pairs won two of the three available medals and are among the favourites for the gold in Pyeongchang.

While qualifying for the Olympics last September, the skaters spoke several times with reporters and seemed relatively open.

"I want to continue to improve until I become world champion," Ryom said at the time.

"They want to show the world that they're a good team. Every time I spoke to them, they always made sure that they never wanted me to feel and confuse politics with sport," Marcotte said.

"And they always wanted to make sure that I saw them as sportsmen and not as political representatives."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2018, with the headline 'N. Korean skaters set to be a hit in Pyeongchang'. Print Edition | Subscribe