What the North Korea Olympic Cheer Squad Tells Us About Nuclear Testing

Isolationist nation North Korea recently announced it will send its cheer squad to February’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. This marks a historic occasion, and not only because of tensions between the two countries. It also means dictator Kim Jong Un started preparations long before he said he remained “open to dialogue” about it. That gives us clues to the nuclear testing the country recently conducted. Below, we’ll answer the most pressing questions about the move.

1. Who are these cheerleaders?

North Korean cheer team members wave their national flags during the World Students Games opening ceremony in Daegu in 2003

North Korean cheer squad members wave their national flags during the World Students Games in 2003. | Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

The squad, which can include hundreds of members, frequently attended international sporting events in the past. The dictator chooses the all-female squad according to strict standards. Those include both physical beauty and allegiance to the regime.

According to Chinese Radio International, North Korea sent 101 cheerleaders in 2005 to the Asian Athletics Championships, also in South Korea. Ri Sol Ju, wife of Kim Jong Un, went as part of the squad. Cheerleaders must be young — about 20 years old, on average — and “uniformly pleasant.” Each of them undergoes a strict background check, to ensure they come from a “good family.” Those with pro-Japanese or defector relatives may not participate.

Next: The squad appears only rarely on the international stage.

2. Why does the squad get sent abroad?

North Korean cheering squad hold their national flag and cheer on track and field athletes in the Asian Athletics Championships

North Korean cheering squad cheer on athletes in the Asian Athletics Championships. | Choi Won Suk/AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong Un deploys the cheerleaders in order to ease tensions and put forth a good face, but does so rarely. Dubbed the “cheering squad of beauty,” the North cheerleaders “improve the country’s image on the world stage.” Their tightly choreographed gymnastic routines create a huge draw, and make their participation a bargaining chip. North Korea used them that way at least once before.

In 2014, North Korea intended to send its squad to the Asian Games with the country. “Our sincere decision this time will melt the frozen North-South relations with the heat of national reconciliation while displaying the entire Korean people’s will of unification in and outside [of the peninsula],” a statement read. However, its 2014 squad did not attend after all. North Korea tangled with the South over expenses and other issues and subsequently canceled.

Next: Sending the squad abroad includes other challenges.

3. What does North Korea have to do to prepare the cheerleaders?

North Korean cheering squad applause during the welcoming ceremony in Daegu

North Korean cheering squad applaud during the welcoming ceremony in Daegu. | Kim Jae Hwan/AFP/Getty Images

According to Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea expert at the Griffith Asia Institute, these trips include months of preparation. “It’s about preparing a group of young people to go into what North Korea sees as ideologically hostile territory. [They become a] show for the world’s media and for the South Korean public,” Abrahamian said. “They want to make sure they’re resistant to ideas and images that may impact how they see their own country or other countries. The more people you take, the more difficult it is.”

The cheer squad also undergoes intense training to prepare them for their appearance. According to The Independent, the women who join the squad must promise to treat their visit to the South as a trip into “enemy territory.” Talking about what they saw there can result in harsh punishments, including labor camp internment.

Next: Their new appearance points to an interesting inconsistency.

4. When did Jong Un really decide to send the athletes?

This undated picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) shows North Korean leader Kim

Jong Un likely made the decision long before he announced it. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

In his New Year’s Day speech, Jong Un proposed a dialogue with South Korea to discuss his country’s participation. In the same speech, he also boasted about acquiring a nuclear deterrent. Those allegedly include intercontinental ballistic missiles that he said he could unleash with his “nuclear button.” But some experts say that could not be the first time Jong Un made a decision about the athletes.

Abrahamian believes North Korea must have already begun preparations to send a large group to the games. That means North Korea planned its Olympic attendance long before Jong Un gave that address.

Next: There’s a good reason why he decided to time it the way he did.

5. What’s the point of waiting to make the announcement?

Kim Jong-Un

Jong Un inspects a ground-to-ground missile in North Korea. | STR/AFP/Getty Images

“I think they wanted to get their last big missile test done, so they could claim completion … and then begin a charm offensive,” Abrahamian told Business Insider. “Leaving it late, and correctly guessing that Seoul would be receptive to North Korean participation, also leaves less time for opposition.”

South Korea remains optimistic about the announcement, for several reasons. It also hopes the talks will lead to other moves to ease tensions, like temporary reunions of elderly people. South Korea’s president, Moon Jae In, remains a strong proponent of dialogue with North Korea. The White House , by contrast, continues to support military action. Moon’s government says the North appears less likely to conduct a missile test during the Olympics if its athletes compete in the South.

Next: Such a possibility has not arisen in many years.

6. When did the North last participate in the games?

North Korean cheerleaders show their support to their team before the quarter-final match against Germany in the FIFA Women's Football World Cup in Wuhan, in 2007

North Korean cheerleader support their team in the FIFA Women’s Football World Cup in China,  2007. | Liu Jin /AFP/Getty Images

According to The New York Times, this year marks the first time North Korea will participate in the Winter Games in eight years. It competed in every Summer Olympics since 1972, except the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and the 1988 Games in Seoul.

Not only did the North shun the 1988 Seoul games; it also tried to disturb them with a terrorist attack. Agents planted a bomb on a Korean Air passenger plane in 1987, a move the South said intended to sabotage the Olympics. The two countries came to this year’s agreement in talks between Cho Myoung Gyon, the South Korean cabinet minister in charge of relations, and his North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Kwon.

Next: The North’s participation says something about the United States, as well.

7. How does this affect the U.S. relationship with North Korea?

Kim Jong-un with binoculars

Kim Jong-Un inspects the test-fire of an intercontinental ballistic missile. | STR/AFP/Getty Images.

“[President Moon has] been pursuing a parallel diplomatic policy,” said Katharine Moon, a professor of Asian studies at Wellesley College. “Basically, it’s like having two partners, and you have to constantly dance with both of them, while at the same time not losing your own stance and your own posture.” That — as well of the threat of a nuclear attack — puts South Korea in a delicate pickle.

The deal ended two years of diplomatic silence between the two Koreas, the LA Times writes. That said, all parties involved still proceed with caution. “While they are competing in the Olympics, they will continue producing fissile material to make nuclear weapons,” said national security adviser Chun Yung Woo.

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