A Night Out With North Korea’s Cheerleaders: Matching Snowsuits, Military Discipline and Chaperoned Bathroom Trips

The cheerleaders have been eating their meals in one of the ballrooms of the adjacent hotel, about 100 meters from their accommodations, Kim said. The women arrived for meals in staggered groups of 30 or so, with two older male chaperones accompanying each group. They enter the ballroom in neat, double-file lines, and when they are finished eating they line up again for the two-minute walk back to their rooms.

Such military precision has been one of the visual hallmarks of their visit this month. At the stadium on Monday, the North Koreans carried identical bags with cheering props, including the white-and-blue unification flag. They wore matching red snowsuits — which swished loudly as they walked in packs — and white sneakers that looked vaguely similar to Adidas. They yelled slogans about unity and sang old Korean folk tunes.

The North Koreans do not make a move without at least one other compatriot and a South Korean government monitor. Trips to the restroom before and after the hockey game, for instance, took place in groups. And the older North Korean men chaperoning the squad who left the stadium during the game for cigarette breaks did so in groups of three.

At times the cheerleaders seemed perfectly engaged with their surroundings, inching forward with anticipation whenever the Korean team made a rare foray toward goal, waving back at times to curious passers-by. The arena was never louder than it was after Sweden scored the first of eight goals and the North Korean cheer squad immediately sparked a rousing, flag-waving chant of “Cheer up!” that was joined by nearly everyone in the stadium.

But at other times they seemed utterly oblivious, or indifferent, to their surroundings. In the second period, an American man proposed to his girlfriend on the arena’s video board, earning raucous cheers, and then a long round of warm applause, from the rapt crowd. All the while, the North Koreans, staring straight ahead, never stopped chanting, “We are one!”

During a stoppage later on in the game, when four scantily clad South Korean cheerleaders gyrated to the song “Boyfriend,” by Avril Lavigne, the North Koreans swayed, clapped and sang their own song in a completely different beat.

Such moments of dissonance combined to a dreamlike effect.

“They will stick on message,” said Jenny Town, assistant director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies. “They are basically unflappable.”

Town said cheerleaders in North Korea were groomed much like athletes and other entertainers, who are seen as symbols of national strength and discipline, and came from elite families in Pyongyang.

Han Seo-hee, 35, a North Korean defector to the South, who was picked to be a cheerleader 16 years ago, said squad members were drawn from various performance troupes around the capital. She said many, herself included, belonged to a band associated with the Ministry of People’s Security, a national law enforcement agency, which she joined after high school. Though it was not a year-round job, the women could be called in for months of full-time training before a major event.

Han explained the selection criteria: “Those who are well assimilated to the North Korean regime, those who are exemplars of working collectively, those who are from the right families, and of course those who meet the height and age standards,” she said.

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