When South Korea hosts the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang next month, a combined North Korea-South Korea women’s hockey team — the countries’ first-ever joint team — will attract a lot of attention. So will the sight of athletes from the two Koreas, divided for some 70 years, marching together in the opening ceremony on Feb. 9.
But even before recent border negotiations led to these shows of unity, the only North Korean athletes who qualified for the Games — a figure skating pair — were already making headlines. With International Olympic Committee approval, they will likely compete in Pyeongchang, despite missing a registration deadline.
Most North Koreans are unable to leave the totalitarian country, but skaters Ryom Tae Ok, 18, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, have competed around the world. Last year, in Japan, they skated their way to a bronze medal at the Asian Games. They also competed in last year’s World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki. And in Germany, they placed sixth in an event that qualified them for the Winter Olympics.
“They were smiling and hugging and celebrating,” says Jun Michael Park, a Seoul-based photojournalist who was shooting images at the qualifying event for The New York Times. “It was really kind of touching to see those kinds of human interactions.”
When the duo gave a press conference and no translators were available, suddenly Park was thrust into the role of simultaneous interpreter.
“I was really nervous just coming into contact with the North Koreans because I’m not allowed, technically,” Park said.
South Koreans are forbidden by their government to even place phone calls to North Korea because of a Cold War-era law that’s still on the books. But they, and now the rest of the world, are paying attention to this pair.
Few details are available about their personal lives.
“It’s almost impossible for people outside the country to know how they grew up as athletes or about how the North Korean infrastructure is supporting the athletes,” says Seong Moon-jeong, a researcher who studies inter-Korean sports at South Korea’s Institute of Sports Science and briefed South Korean diplomats ahead of the latest talks with North Koreans about the Olympics.
“Pair figure skating became huge in North Korea ever since Kim Jong Un came into power. In North Korea, the sports the leader is interested in get a lot of attention and support,” Seong says.
This weekend, the International Olympic Committee is meeting near Geneva to decide whether Ryom and Kim can compete in next month’s Games. Photographer Park, a believer in sports diplomacy, says he’s rooting for them.
“You know, there should be more interactions, more human interactions. And maybe that will lead to better understanding,” he says.
As he translated the North Koreans’ words into English for throngs of press in Germany last year, he could hear differences — reflecting the division of the Korean peninsula — come through in their vocabulary.
”I think their form of the Korean language is maybe a little bit more pure. In South Korea, we have lot of English words or foreign words that we use without even thinking about,” Park explains.
The regime will direct how much foreign exposure North Koreans will get at the Olympics. Historically, Pyongyang has used international showcases as propaganda opportunities.
But Seong, the sports researcher, says any cultural exchange is good for the North Korean people. With it, they will “have the international viewpoint that they cannot get otherwise,” Seong says.
In one way, the North Korean figure skaters are already showing international savvy. Their short program is set to music by the Beatles. The song’s opening line: “I read the news today, oh boy.”
NPR Seoul producer Se Eun Gong contributed to this story.