The North Korean Cheer Squad Is Playing a Different Olympic Game
Winter Olympics fashion has, largely, been a tale of two events: the opening and closing ceremonies, where national costume comes out to play; and figure skating, where the aesthetic swings and swoops from Vegas-on-ice to Vera Wang, with a touch of Broadway and Diaghilev thrown in. As of this week, however, a new factor was added to the mix: the North Korean cheerleading squad.
Approximately 230 young women strong, the squad arrived for the Pyeongchang Games in matching red wool coats, buttoned at the waist, with black fur trim at the neck and wrists and matching black caps, high-heeled ankle boots and sheer hosiery. They toted matching red wheelies and handbags, and all grinned matching grins.
Imagine a cross between Pan Am “stewardesses” of the 1960s, “Red Sparrow” and the Dallas Cowboys squad, and you’ll get the idea. In North Korea they are reportedly known as “the army of beauties.”
For a country whose image is defined largely by the figure of its leader, Kim Jong-un, with his severe military dress and strange trapezoidal hairstyle, the cheer squad provides a visual message of a different kind.
There to support the joint North and South Korean team, they also serve, at least theoretically, to normalize and humanize the regime — propaganda in fashionable person form.
The cheer squad first appeared in 2002 during the Asian Games in Busan, and have also been at the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon, but the Olympics will be their global coming-out moment.
Chosen, according to reports from An Chan-Il, a defector who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, by strict criteria on height and family background — Ri Sol-ju, the wife of Kim Jong-un, was originally in the cheer squad — they have worn everything from traditional Korean garb to Nike baseball caps and T-shirts, and often use flags and fans in the routines they do from the stands.
据世界朝鲜问题研究所(World Institute for North Korea Studies)所长、脱北者安江日（An Chan II，音）的说法，她们是依据身高、家庭背景方面的严格标准选拔出来的——金正恩的妻子李雪主最初也在这支啦啦队里——她们既穿传统朝鲜服装，也穿耐克棒球帽和T恤衫，并经常在看台的常规表演中使用旗帜和扇子。
Nike! Just like you and me.
In front of the millions who will watch the Olympics and who have a very specific stereotype of a hermit kingdom in mind, colored in shades of drab, the garb may provide a jolt of outreach. Clothes can do that. They are an access point everyone can read and relate to.
After all, when Kim Jong-un appeared in a gray tailored suit during his New Year’s address instead of his usual army uniform, it caused ripples across the internet.
Though exactly how normal 230 young women wearing precisely matched clothing and acting in lock step really is, is up for debate. Even the athletes, marching into the arena in their team uniforms, express more sartorial individuality than the cheer squad.
So it’s possible that the squad’s image-ineering could backfire, could strike the world as yet another example of the way the authoritarian regime dictates every aspect of its citizens’ lives. But everything is relative. And compared to the perception of dress in the country, the cheer squad has a glow of color and style that is both unexpected and weirdly mesmerizing.
Either way, given the global attention paid to the impeccably coordinated opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics with its choreographed displays of harmony, there’s no doubt the cheer squad is going to get a lot of attention. Odds are they will be chronicled and photographed regularly throughout the Games, and may make most of the fashion news (at least until Ivanka Trump arrives).
Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a certain famous TV watcher also tuning in for the Games and being struck by the allure of having a national cheer squad. What better accompaniment to the military parade President Trump reportedly desires? Rah-rah.