Asia

North Korea's cheerleading charm offensive

North Korean cheerleaders in Wuhan Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption North Korea's cheerleading squad, seen here in China, will be appearing at the Pyeongchang Games

North Korea on Tuesday announced that it would be sending a delegation to this year's Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, including a team of cheerleaders.

Though a cheerleading squad may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of North Korea, they have played a big role in the political scene over the years.

Who are the cheerleaders?

Unsurprisingly for the genre, they are mostly women in their early or mid 20s, according to Kim Gyeong-sung, the South Korean head of the Inter-Korean Athletic Exchange Association.

He says they are chosen "on the basis of appearance" but also having the right "ideology".

They are handpicked from university students, propaganda squad members and music school students, according to China Radio International (CRI).

Pyongyang also carries out preliminary background checks on the cheerleaders, according to CRI.

This is to make sure they aren't related to North Korean defectors or those who are seen as pro-Japanese.

How often do they perform in public?

The prized cheerleaders aren't strangers to large crowds, having no doubt constantly been exposed to North Korea's Arirang Festival, the annual mass gymnastics and artistic event in Pyongyang.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The annual Arirang mass games involve tens of thousands of performers

They also occasionally make an appearance to accompany athletes travelling overseas. In 2007, they were sent to China for the Fifa Women's Football World Cup in Wuhan.

But Pyongyang has only sent the cheerleaders to South Korea three times since the start of the Korean War.

A squad of 288 attended the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, a team of 303 cheerleaders accompanied athletes to the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu, and in 2005 some 101 cheerleaders were sent for the Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.

They were going to be sent to the Asian Games again in 2014 to "improve relationships".

But North Korea eventually took back the offer after failing to agree on expenditure and several other issues.

Are there any famous cheerleaders?

The cheerleading group, with their good looks and synchronised moves, have their fair share of fans in South Korea.

They've been called "an army of beauties", often receiving more attention then the athletes themselves.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Ms Ri, now North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's wife, is seen here as part of the 2005 cheerleading squad in Incheon
Image copyright EPA
Image caption Not much is known about her background and marriage to Mr Kim

Undoubtedly the most famous North Korean cheerleader is Ri Sol-ju, who is now the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

In 2005, she was pictured among the squad at the Asian Athletics Championships.

What is the significance of their deployment this time?

North Korea's sending of cheerleaders to the South, for the first time in more than 10 years, could be seen as an olive branch.

The announcement comes amid tensions between North and South.

Pyongyang's regular missile tests and a sixth nuclear test last year have brought a tightening of UN and US sanctions.

There's also been a slew of angry threats over the past year aimed at South Korea, Japan and the US.

Having a cheering crowd of attractive North Koreans at the Games will be good for Pyongyang's global image.

They may also end up performing alongside cheerleaders from the US in official ceremonies.

But it's not just Pyongyang that has something to gain.

Organisers of the Pyeongchang Winter Games have struggled with ticket sales so far - perhaps due to the high tensions and the fact that North Korea lies only 60 miles North Korea's cheerleading charm offensive(90km) away from the main venue.

So perhaps this charm offensive will be just what both countries need to turn things around.

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