At the practice rink, North Korean figure-skating pair enthralls South Korean crowd

South Korean athletes and spectators at the Pyeongchang Olympics are not holding back when it comes to showing their enthusiasm and curiosity for the 22 North Koreans participating in the Winter Games, snapping selfies and cheering them on at practice and on social media.

Smiles and selfies between rivals bring hope for 'Peace Olympics' — but is it naive?

North Korea's figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik take part in a training session at the Gangneung Ice Arena in Gangneung, South Korea. The pair and the other 20 North Korean athletes have gotten an enthusiastic reception since arriving at the Pyeongchang Games. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

There were gasps at the Gangneung Ice Arena during practice. Volunteers and journalists sat up in their chairs. One woman covered her mouth as a North Korean pairs figure skater executed a lift.

Polite applause typically follows pairs Olympic figure-skating teams during these routine training sessions. But lately, there's a heightened anticipation when the announcer introduces one particular team at the rink: "Tae-ok Ryom and Ju-sik Kim, from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

"Ohh, North Korea!" several female South Korean volunteers murmured excitedly, holding their smartphones aloft. It was the only practice the volunteers bothered to record that day, they conceded.

South Korean volunteers are fascinated with the North Korean figure skaters, filming practice sessions. (CBC)

Curiosity is surrounding the pair of North Koreans, with the rink's practice sessions inviting intense interest from South Korean spectators.

The Canadian-coached duo of Ryom, 19, and her partner Kim, 25, flashed broad smiles during practices last week as they launched off to French-Canadian chanteuse Ginette Reno's brassy pop ballad Je ne suis qu'une chanson.

Their sunny attitudes, and expressiveness on the ice, have made them stars in the eyes of South Koreans unaccustomed to seeing their Northern neighbours display much warmth. They appeared to be "having fun," one volunteer said.

Smiling faces

"She's smiley face. Smiley face is good," she said.

Ryom earned the nickname "Angel of Smiles" in the South Korean press after she gave a cheery wave to reporters upon arriving at the athletes village.

The skaters and other North Korean athletes have fallen into a good-natured camaraderie with fellow Olympians, including their South Korean competitors.

In a selfie posted to his Instagram, South Korean pairs skater Alex Kang Chan posed with Kim, tagging the photo: "With my bro from up North." Both athletes can be seen making peace signs. 

Although North and South Korea remain technically at war, the Winter Games in Pyeongchang have been hyped as a potential "Peace Olympics." Last month, North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes and a delegation to participate in the global sports event hosted by their arch-enemies in the South.

The two Koreas agreed to field a joint North-South women's hockey team. At a rare lunch between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean president Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong on Saturday, Kim extended an invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang.

But there's been resistance to liberal President Moon's overtures to the North, with protests outside some Olympic venues. A younger generation objects to the outreach, fearful South Korea is being played by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Détente likely to be short-lived

Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, D.C, doesn't expect this détente will last past February.

"Come springtime, North Korea is going to test missiles," he said. "They're going to build up this reservoir of goodwill, but I don't think it's going to be enough for South Korea to turn the other cheek."

At the Gangneung Ice Arena on Sunday, there was resentment from some South Korean sports fans about the international attention athletes from the North are receiving.

"Why are they making such a big deal?" asked So-hyun Park, 21. "These Olympics are held in our country, South Korea, in Pyeongchang. I think the North is using this in a political way, and I don't think it's right."

Even so, some South Koreans see in Ryom and Kim small glimpses of what reconciliation might look like.

Asked why she seemed so transfixed by the North Korean pairs team during a practice last week, Sun-hyuk Kim said, "Because we are one Korea."

Canadian coach for pair

Ryom and Kim have been billed as North Korea's best chance at getting on the podium, but that chance is still remote. Their Canadian coach, Bruno Marcotte, trained them in Montreal and hopes they'll place within the top 10 or 12 teams.

One way or another, Marcotte said, they deserve their shot after qualifying for the Olympics in Oberstdorf, Germany, last year.

Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte, third from left, stands in a group photo between North Korean pairs figure skaters Tae-ok Ryom, in pink, and Ju-sik Kim. Marcotte trained the North Koreans last year in Montreal. He is married to Canadian pairs skater Meagan Duhamel, left, whose skating partner is Eric Radford, centre. (Submitted by Bruno Marcotte)

For many spectators, the big deal isn't that the North Koreans are serious medal contenders at these Olympics; it's that they're here at all.

"It's the first time we watch the North Korean people in person. I want to talk to them," said Byeol-yi Kim, another South Korean volunteer.

Cynics warn about romanticizing a brutal regime, noting it would suit the North Korean regime's interests to soften an image more often associated with prison camps, starvation and nuclear ambitions.

"There's an element of exoticism," said Simon Cockerell, the manager of Koryo Tours, an independent travel firm that specializes in bringing travellers to North Korea. "Most people have never interacted with anyone from North Korea. Even people from South Korea have never laid eyes on someone from North Korea."

Aiming for a personal best

Marcotte, the North Korean pair's coach and also the head coach for Canada's top-ranked pairs team of Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford in Pyeongchang, believes all the talk of politics and media attention would be an unwelcome distraction for Ryom and Kim. Their only focus, he said in an interview, "is to get better."

'They really want to make me proud, and do their work with pride,' says the pair's Canadian coach, Bruno Marcotte. (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

After a year of training in Montreal, including tricky logistics securing visas for them, a language barrier that requires an interpreter, and help from Marcotte's wife, Meagan Duhamel, who drove the North Koreans to practice, Ryom and Kim aren't so much concerned about getting to the podium as they are about achieving a personal best score, Marcotte said.

"The main thing is I know they don't want to let me down," Marcotte said. "They really want to make me proud, and do their work with pride."

Ryom and Kim's next event is the short program on Wednesday at 10 a.m. local time.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong