A North Korean army entered South Korea — an “Army of Beauties,” that is.
That’s the colloquial name for North Korea’s 230-strong, all-female cheerleading squad. They form part of the country’s delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, which also includes athletes, artists, and politicians — many of whom arrived ahead of the games.
It’s a pretty historic moment for North Korea, since it’s the first time the country will compete in the Winter Olympics in eight years. Their participation comes after months of tension — and the threat of possible nuclear war — with the United States and South Korea, the host country.
In January, Pyongyang agreed to let its citizens compete in the Winter Games. Now North Koreans will be able to ski down mountains, figure skate, and play hockey against some of the best athletes in the world.
More symbolically, North Koreans marched under one flag with South Koreans during the opening ceremony — a rare moment of unity for a divided region. The flag has a white background with a blue outline of the country.
And North Korea has pulled out all the stops for this event. Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, and Kim Yong Nam, an influential and top North Korean official, lead the Pyongyang delegation. Cheerleaders, fans, reporters, a taekwondo demonstration team, and a 140-member orchestra joined them.
It’s rare that North Koreans are allowed to leave their insular country. But now they have they chance to prove themselves against some of the best athletes in the world. If you want to follow along as the event unfolds, here are five things to watch for.
In a show of unity, North and South Korea will walk together during the opening ceremony
The two countries plan to march under the Korean unification flag, which depicts the entire Korean Peninsula in blue against a white backdrop. That’s rare, but not unprecedented. The two countries first displayed the flag at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and most recently at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy.
This video shows a few times when both countries marched together during past Olympics:
These marches have yet to lead to a real thaw in tensions between Pyongyang and Seoul, but both countries seem fine playing nice every few years.
North and South Korea formed a joint women’s hockey team
You read that right: The Koreas formed a joint women’s hockey team for the Olympic Games just two weeks ago. Twelve North Korean players joined the existing 23-member South Korean team.
They’re off to a rough start: The team lost 3-1 during an exhibition match against Sweden in their only practice game. It’s their only tune-up before the actual games begin on February 9.
It’s always challenging to build a rapport with new teammates, but that task is more difficult for this team because of language differences. According to the joint team’s Canadian coach, Sarah Murray, she and her players put together a document to help everyone understand hockey terms.
“In North Korean, there are no English words so everything is totally different. So we actually made like a dictionary, English to Korean to North Korean,” Murray told reporters on Monday.
Here’s an example of what she means, from the Associated Press:
South Korean players use the English loan word “pass,” but their North Korean teammates say “yeol lak” or “communication.” South Koreans call a “winger” a “wing,” but North Koreans say “nahl gay soo” or “wing player.” South Koreans say “block shot” while North Koreans say “buhduh make,” or “stretching to block.”
Communication aside, the team doesn’t have a great chance of winning a medal. Both North and South Korea’s squads ranked below the top 20 teams before they joined forces. Still, the fact that there’s a joint team at all may serve as a “moral victory” of sorts.
North Koreans will compete in many disciplines during the Olympics
If you’re not a hockey fan but still want to watch North Korea compete at the Olympics, you’re in luck.
Ten other North Koreans will be participating in the Winter Games. They include:
- Three alpine skiers
- Three cross-country skiers
- Two short-track speed skaters
- A figure skating duo
The figure skating team of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik will likely garner the most attention because they’re quite good. They won gold in August 2016 during a major figure skating competition, and soon after won bronze at separate tournament. But Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, stumbled a bit last April when they finished 15th during the World Figure Skating Championships.
The pair still qualified for the Olympics last November, but North Korea’s Olympic Committee missed the deadline to register them for the games. The International Olympics Committee — the Olympics’ governing body — made an exception to let them compete.
There’s a chance for some high-stakes diplomacy
The Olympics will be chock-full of political intrigue, thanks to North Korea’s presence.
That starts with Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister. She’s the first immediate member of the Kim family ever to travel to South Korea, and the fact that Pyongyang is sending her southward is a sign that tensions between the two countries may be thawing.
The historic move could also increase the likelihood of a strategic rift between South Korea and the US, since Washington is generally more skeptical of North Korea’s intentions and more inclined to lay out preconditions tied to its nuclear program for high-level talks.
Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be around 30, has quickly ascended the political ranks in Pyongyang. Last year, Kim Jong Un promoted her to become a member of the country’s influential Politburo, the top decision-making body in the North Korean government. She’s also a vice director of North Korea’s propaganda department and, analysts say, one of her brother’s closest confidants.
South Korea’s unification ministry said Kim’s inclusion in the North Korean Olympic delegation was “meaningful” because of how senior she is. There’s a chance South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, may meet with her.
But that’s not all. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence suggested he might be open to meeting with North Korean officials while he’s in South Korea. Such a meeting would represent a potentially major diplomatic breakthrough amid Washington’s ongoing nuclear standoff with North Korea, which has fueled fears of a cataclysmic war that could kill millions of people.
That means he might meet with either Kim Yo Jong or Kim Yong Nam while at the games. That would be somewhat of a reversal for the Trump administration. President Donald Trump time and time again has denigrated the need to talk with North Korea.
As of now, there is no indication that Pence will actually meet with Kim Yo Jong or Kim Yong Nam, or anyone else from North Korea’s leadership, but the fact that it’s even under discussion is significant.
Not everyone is happy with North Korea’s participation
While plan to have North Korea at the Olympics could lead to an improvement in relations with its southern neighbor, some South Koreans are skeptical.
The head coach of South Korea’s women’s hockey team said that North Korean players could cause “damage” to her players. Conservative South Korean press also criticized the joint hockey team and said it could hurt the country’s chances of winning a medal.
The public didn’t like the idea either: About 70 percent of South Koreans opposed the joint squad, and some protesters petitioned the exhibition match with Sweden.
Tens of thousands of South Koreans signed an online petition calling for their president to drop the plan to integrate the ice hockey team.
But for now, the plan for a more united Korean team on and off the ice looks like it will proceed as planned. That means there’s a chance relations between the two countries improve after the games — but it’s not worth hanging all hope on the success of this historic Olympics.