North Korean cheerleaders in high spirits on Olympic arrival

Seoul - More than 200 North Korean cheerleaders sporting matching scarlet coats and pelt hats arrived in South Korea on Wednesday to root for athletes from both sides of the peninsula at the Winter Olympics.

The 229 young women were among a 280-member delegation who crossed the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas at the Dorasan border post north of Seoul.

Each donning the same coat and dark hat worn by the North's art troupe, who arrived the previous day, the cheerleaders were jovial as they piled through the South's immigration control, exchanging comments with a horde of South Korean journalists.

"I am happy to see you," said one, beaming broadly.

Photo: AFP

Asked about their cheering routines, she joked: "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, screening for their family backgrounds, looks, skills and loyalty to the ruling Workers' Party.

The North has sent such cheerleaders 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.

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.

They boarded a convoy of South Korean buses to take them to Gangneung, where the ice hockey events will be held, and around 20 well-wishers waved blue and white unification flags to welcome them as they drove into South Korea.

Photo: AFP

The delegation, led by Pyongyang's sports minister Kim Il-Guk, also includes three other officials from the National Olympic Committee, 26 taekwondo demonstrators and 21 journalists.

The Olympics have triggered a rapid rapprochement on the divided Korean peninsula after the nuclear-armed North's leader expressed a willingness to participate in his New Year speech.

The two Koreas held a rare high-level meeting last month and the North's ceremonial head of state is due to arrive Friday, the highest-level Pyongyang official ever to visit the South.

But critics in the South allege the North has been allowed to hijack the Pyeongchang Games, dubbing them the Pyongyang Olympics instead.