When a country participates in a multinational sporting event, its athletes should be at the centre of attention. But that was not the case for North Korea. What stole the limelight was the squad of young, doll-faced cheerleaders in traditional costumes waving the national flag.
Pyongyang on Monday announced its plan to send its cheerleading squad to the 17th Asian Games to take place in Incheon from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4, drawing keen media attention and speculation on the intentions behind the dispatch of the group.
Analysts said that Pyongyang may seek to capitalise on the beauty of the cheerleaders to forge a reconciliatory mood and improve inter-Korean cooperation hampered by the North's relentless saber-rattling.
"The North may try to make the best use of the beautiful ladies to forge a climate conducive to improving inter-Korean cooperation. Given that it is a civilian event, the North also intends to ameliorate public opinion in the South about the North," said Chang Yong-seok, an analyst at the Institute of Peace and Unification Studies affiliated with Seoul National University.
"Pyongyang may also seek to project a positive image of the Kim Jong-un regime through the cheerleaders looking full of promise."
The North sent hundreds of female cheerleaders to the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon. Ri Sol-ju, the wife of leader Kim Jong-un, was part of the cheering staff during the 2005 event.
As their mission is of great importance, the cheerleaders have reportedly been selected through a grueling screening process. They also receive intensive ideological education as their loyalty toward the dictatorial ruler could wane after witnessing the advanced South Korean society, experts said.
According to News Focus, a local media outlet focusing on North Korean issues, there are strict criteria for the aspiring cheerleaders to meet.
One of them is their family background. Candidates should not have any relatives who have defected to the South. The North Korean regime apparently thinks that cheerleaders could attempt to defect with the help of relatives in the South when they arrive.
Another criteria is appearance and height. As the cheerleaders will draw much media attention, the regime may want to pick women who can be seen as beautiful not from a North Korean perspective, but from a South Korean one. The regime is also said to evaluate the candidates' loyalty to the despotic ruler.
Many of the cheerleaders are known to be from arts or teachers' colleges in the North.
Even after being selected, cheerleaders reportedly go through a tough education period, during which they learn how to form positive opinions about the dynastic Kim family and the ruling Workers' Party.
Considering such education, it was no wonder that the cheerleaders worshiped their "Dear Leader Kim" in a tearful voice whenever South Korean media approached them with cameras and voice recorders during past sporting events here.
Once they arrive, the cheerleading staff falls under the supervision of government minders ― a reason why personal contact with the outside world is out of the question.