The spectacle of North Korea’s all-female cheerleading squad is attracting attention, and mixed reactions, at the Olympics in Pyeongchang. On one hand, many South Koreans have said that seeing the women has reminded them that the North Koreans, despite the rhetoric of their despotic leadership, are people like themselves. On the other hand, critics have been quick to point out that the tightly controlled group of women are present at the games not just to cheer on the joint Korean teams, but also to serve as propaganda for North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong U. His “Army of Beauties,” as they’re known. Han Seo-Hee, a former North Korean cheerleader who defected to the South several years ago, told BBC News that during her training she had been “told to go into the heart of the enemy.”
“The North trained us to have this basic mindset that we were on the frontline of promoting the Juche (self-reliance) ideology,” explained Seo-hee, 35. “We were separated for different kinds of psychological training. We were told we should not be surprised or shocked by another world. In particular, the training’s focus was that we shouldn’t forget our home country, not even for a minute, and also not to forget that we there to honor General Kim.”
According to The New York Times, male handlers prevent outsiders from engaging with the cheerleaders by staying with the women at all times — even when they go to the bathroom. The women, Han Seo-hee explained, are from elite families and are chosen from performance troupes across North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang. The cheerleaders, she added, all have to be taller than 5 feet, 3 inches, and in their early 20s. And if they’re like her, she added, they might actually find themselves somewhat disappointed to find out that South Korea isn’t a literal paradise.
“This will be a new generation of cheerleaders. They are in their 20s and will have a fantasy image of South Korea formed by watching TV dramas. They might have so much of an illusion that they might be disappointed. I did as well. I thought every city in South Korea would be beautiful, just like in fairy tales,” Seo-hee told the BBC.
Watch Seo-hee’s interview with BBC News below.