The North Korean cheerleaders, a team of 230 young women sent to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games to support only 22 North Korean athletes, have been in the media a lot lately. They are undoubtedly a sight to see: dressed in matching red coats and expensive furs, they have prepared cheer routines that are performed with military precision. At every event in which the unified Korean team competes, these cheerleaders are in the stands, clapping, waving flags and singing songs that praise North Korea.
In many instances, the women have been swarmed by the press and excited onlookers, who jostle for a photo or quote. In fact, the media has become so focused on the cheerleaders themselves that it has forgotten the bigger picture that these women symbolize. Media outlets outside of Korea have coined the phrase “army of beauties” to describe this cheer squad. Suki Kim, journalist and author of “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite” and journalist who spent months undercover in North Korea, explains that these women are not an army and do not accurately represent North Korea. “That country is really nothing to do with either cheerleaders or the Olympics, which actually is about the world coming together. North Korea is the one place the world is not allowed to enter,” she explained. This so-called “army of beauties” is merely a distraction from North Korea’s actual military power—a distraction that is, unfortunately, succeeding.
These women are doing exactly what Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un hoped they would when he sent them to PyeongChang: drawing the attention of the media and spectators. The cheerleaders are beautiful, young and focused, and their routines are perfectly coordinated. Their presence not only humanizes the North Korean regime, but also makes it seem charming, while still symbolizing the North’s strength and discipline. The cheer squad is a form of propaganda, a charm offensive that continues performing no matter what. After the combined North and South Korean women’s ice hockey team lost 8-0 to Sweden, the cheerleaders nonetheless continued clapping and singing with the same vigor. The spectacle is surely mesmerizing, but by focusing so much on this squad, we have lost sight of the very real threat that North Korea poses.
Too much media coverage has focused on the women themselves or criticized them for agreeing to be a part of the regime. However, as Kim explains, “they are not an army and they are not cheerleaders. They’re actually college students who’ve been rounded up by the government to be sent overseas to look pretty.” These young women are selected from North Korea’s top universities based on a variety of factors, including height (at least 5’3”), youth, family status and dedication to the North Korean regime. They have no choice in the matter.
In addition, Han Seo-hee, a former North Korean cheerleader who defected and now lives in South Korea, explained that these women undergo extensive psychological training. They are also not allowed to discuss what they see on their visit to the South; after the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon, South Korea, which was the last time North Korea sent cheerleaders to an international sports event in the South, 21 North Korean cheerleaders were sent to prison camps for doing so.
While at Olympic events, this cheer squad is separated from the crowd by male minders who surround them on all sides; visits to the bathroom are supervised and must occur in groups. The cheerleaders are not even paid, although many see traveling outside their country as a great opportunity. These women don’t have a choice. As Jia Tolentino wrote in a recent article for The New Yorker, “The squad is supposed to have incredible power—but that power is directly connected to the degree to which the girls appear under control.”
The female body is being used here as a distraction and their submissiveness as a form of promotion. Whether you think they symbolize the opportunity of reconciliation between the North and the South or are simply a manifestation of North Korea’s militaristic propaganda is not really the point, because either way, this debate indicates that we are are doing exactly what Kim Jong-Un intended, which is focusing on and agonizing over these female bodies rather than on the threat that North Korea poses. The united Korean flag does not fool me, and neither does this army of beauties. We, and the media, should turn our attention away from the North Korean cheerleaders and focus on the real threat.