'Kim Il-Sung' mask used during unified Koreas' ice hockey game stirs controversy

PHOTO: AFP

It has been 24 years since North Korean founder Kim Il-sung died, but the face of the man who started the reclusive regime has sparked furor among Koreans with the "Kim Il-sung mask" controversy.

The unified Korean women's hockey team -- the first unified Korean team in the Olympics -- faced Switzerland in a well-fought, but ultimately defeated, match. During the game, the group of supporters from North Korea were seen cheering the unified team while wearing a mask of a young man.

After the image emerged, suspicions that the mask bore the picture of a young Kim Il-sung surfaced among South Koreans. It was further fueled by those disgruntled by the participation of the North, which has been aggravating regional tensions with its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.

The South Korean Unification Ministry attempted to put out the fire early by saying Sunday the face was not that of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's grandfather.

"(The ministry) informs you that the mask used by the North Korean supporters during the women's' ice hockey match was a 'handsome man's mask'," the ministry said in its statement.

According to the ministry, which quoted North Korean officials, the mask bears the image of a generic good looking man and is used similarly to the mask in "Talchum," the Korean traditional mask dance.

But it has done little to appease those calling this year's Olympics the "Pyongyang Games."

"Will they (the ministry) say it's not Kim even after seeing the picture of the younger Kim? Even the hair is identical," said Ha Tae-kyung of the minor opposition Bareun Party.

"Do you have to lie when it is clear that it is a Kim Il-sung mask? Do you want to make PyeongChang Olympics a 'lie Olympics'?" he said, taking a jab at the Seoul government's slogan to make the games "Peace Olympics."

The ruling Democratic Party of Korea released a statement saying that decrying such comments as a political seeks to tarnish the legacy of the Winter Games.

See North Korea's cheerleading 'army of beauties' in action

  • North Korea's cheerleaders serenaded South Korean fans with tender love songs on Saturday (Feb 10) as a joint Korean ice hockey team's emotional Olympic debut ended in tears before the sister of Kim Jong Un.
  • Around 200 of North Korea's famed "army of beauties" charmed a crowd of 3,600 besotted locals with nostalgic oldies - and even broke out a Mexican wave.
  • Decked out in red tracksuits and woolly hats, North Korea's cheerleaders sang "uri nun, hana da" (we are one) and clapped in perfect unison as local hip hop artists rapped on a stage behind them and K-Pop blared over the loudspeakers in a stark clash of cultures.
  • Local fans took pictures of the cheerleaders, who smiled for the cameras before unfurling a unification flag at the final buzzer.
  • The cheerleaders continued to chant long after the rest of the arena had emptied.
  • The troupe, cheered by dozens of fans as their bus pulled up under tight security before the game, have been dispatched south as part of a North Korean charm offensive after months of fiery rhetoric threatening nuclear war and provocative missile tests.
  • The ladies, all in their late teens or early 20s, are said to be handpicked from elite universities and undergo strict background checks.
  • During the game, the group of supporters from North Korea were seen cheering the unified team while wearing a mask of a young man.
  • After the image emerged, suspicions that the mask bore the picture of a young Kim Il-sung surfaced among South Koreans. It was further fueled by those disgruntled by the participation of the North, which has been aggravating regional tensions with its ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
  • The South Korean Unification Ministry attempted to put out the fire early by saying Sunday the face was not that of the current North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's grandfather.
  • "(The ministry) informs you that the mask used by the North Korean supporters during the women's' ice hockey match was a 'handsome man's mask'," the ministry said in its statement.

"Considering the North Korean system and culture, it is impossible to use Kim Il-sung's face -- which is held in the highest dignity -- for cheering for their team," said Rep. Back Hye-ryun, spokesperson for the ruling party. "The Unification Ministry has directly made an inquiry to the North Korean cheering squad and confirmed that it was not a Kim Il-sung mask."

Many experts on North Korea say that it is unlikely that the North Koreans have made a Kim Il-sung mask, given the fact that he is the most revered figure in the country.

"In North Korea, Kim Il-sung is a 'divine' figure. Christians generally don't cheer with a Jesus mask, and Muslims don't wear mask of Allah (in such events)... It is hard to imagine making Kim's face into a mask in North Korea, where losing a Kim Il-sung badge was a sin that could land you in a concentration camp," Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, wrote on his Facebook page. "It's more likely that the image is that of a star in North Korea... They (North Koreans) don't use Kim Jong-un's face, would they use Kim Il-sung's face? Really?"

Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies, echoed Cha's view that the image is unlikely to be that of Kim.

"It is more likely that by using the face of a handsome man that the North Korean supporters are challenging the wide-spread idea of 'Namnam-booknyeo' (good looking men come from the South and the beautiful women come from the North)" he told local media.

Meet the 200-strong 'army of beauties' from North Korea

  • After 10 days at the PyeongChang games, the 229 cheerleaders and 22 athletes are heading home.
  • A total of 299 North Koreans crossed the inter-Korean border at 12:38 pm on Feb 26. after going through the customs, immigration and quarantine office in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, on the southern side of the border.
  • The cheerleaders -- who captured the eyes and hearts of the Olympic audience after making their first cross-border trip in 13 years -- also left the South.
  • They rooted mostly for the joint hockey team throughout their South Korean trip, which lasted a total of 19 days.
  • A cheerleader expressed her hope for a unified Korea saying that the Olympics was an opportunity that showed inter-Korean co-operation was the answer to unification.
  • "I thought that the two Koreas could be unified as soon as possible, as we are one," another cheerleader said. "I was so happy as I could cheer for the unified team."
  • More than 200 sharply dressed North Korean cheerleaders decked out in expensive fur smiled and posed for the media and onlookers on Wednesday (Feb 7) after arriving in South Korea for the Pyeongchang Olympics.
  • The 229 chic young women wore tailored knee-lenth scarlet coats with fur hats, fur collars, and matching cuffs to ward off the winter chill.
  • They were immediately whisked away in a convoy to their hotel in Inje county, a small rural town located 120 kilometres from the Games venue in Pyeongchang.
  • The young women were given a quick bathroom break at a rest area in Gapyeong, located about halfway to their hotel destination.
  • The women were part of a 280-member delegation who crossed the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas at a border post north of Seoul.
  • They strutted past South Koreans onlookers, who snapped out their smartphones for photos of the rare sight.
  • "I am happy to see you," said one cheerleader, beaming broadly but refusing to disclose their cheerleading routine.
  • "You just wait. If I tell you now, it would be less exciting when you see it."
  • The cheerleaders are reportedly the product of a careful selection process in North Korea.
  • They are screened for their family backgrounds, looks, skills and loyalty to the ruling Workers' Party.
  • The North has sent cheer squads to three international sports events hosted by the South - the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.
  • One of those in the 2005 group, Ri Sol Ju, went on to become the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
  • "I don't want to say it but North Korea's cheering squad is quite pretty. You can throw stones at me but the truth is the truth," said another observer on Twitter.
  • "I think they are very pretty," said a South Korean onlooker.
  • At a dinner banquet hosted by South Korea, the cheerleaders - in matching bright red two-piece jackets and skirts complete with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lapel pins - were seen chatting among themselves at round tables.
  • The guests were served grilled scallops, shrimp wrapped in pickled radish, barbequed beef, beef stew, fruit and beer.
  • "A new era of reconcialiation has been opened," said a North Korean delegate leading the cheer squads, referring to a thaw in North and South Korean relations ahed of the Games.
  • With only 10 North Korean athletes competing for their country at the Games, and another 12 on the roster of a unified Korean women's ice hockey team, the cheerleaders will reportedly support South Korean athletes when none of their own are in action.
  • "By the way, I love the North Korean cheering squad's outfit. It's quite something! I want that hat!" said one South Korea fan on Twitter.
  • For the cheering squad, this trip marks its first appearance in 13 years at a South Korea-hosted international sporting event.
  • Some cheerleaders nodded and smiled when press asked whether they were all from Pyongyang, and replied they were from different age groups when questioned as to how old they are.