Staying on message in Daegu“They’re so beautiful!” cried Yang Hyeon-jeong, a 25-year-old volunteer at the Summer Universiade Daegu 2003, as a bus filled with North Korean cheerleaders prepared to depart.
Using a camera phone, Ms. Yang took a picture of two of the girls sitting on the bus. Then she held the phone up to the window so the cheerleaders could see their picture.
The North Koreans looked at the image with apparent amazement. They nudged a friend so she could see it too.
“Look how flawless their skin is!” cried Ms. Yang’s friend Lee Hae-shin, 21, also a volunteer.
The South Korean girls jumped up and down with joy, making the universal sign of love, putting their hands over their head and shouting, “Saranghaeyo” (“I love you”).
The North Korean girls couldn’t hear the words through the window, but seemed to understand the body language. “Banggawayo” (“Nice to meet you”), the girls from the South cried.
Mouthing the words broadly so they could be understood, the cheerleaders replied, “We should reunify!” They traced their names on the window with their fingers: Kim Hae-song, 20, and Kim Yae-song, 18. Smiling as though they’d known each other all their lives, the girls on both sides began tracing messages on the window. But soon the engine gave its final roar, and the bus pulled away.
“I feel irritated that we couldn’t speak to each other directly,” Ms. Yang and Ms. Lee said in unison.
“We wanted to know how their school lives are,” Ms. Lee grumbled, looking at the bus receding in the distance. “Yeah, we wanted to know what they did during their breaks,” added Ms. Yang. “There’s so much to ask and talk about.”
Since the moment last week when 150 North Korean cheerleaders, along with a brass band of 117 and an entourage of about 35, stepped off the plane in Daegu last week, all eyes have been on them. Wherever they’ve gone, they’ve drawn large crowds trying to get a close-up glimpse.
People shout greetings, hoping for any kind of response ― even a timid smile, or the wave of a hand. Cameras flash from every angle. Reporters hang on every word they say, and try to get more out of them, with little success.
This isn’t the first time the Stalinist state to the north has sent a troop of young, beautiful girls over the demarcation line. Last year, North Korean cheerleaders came to the port city of Busan for the 2002 Asian Games.
That squad took the South by surprise. These were not the dark-skinned, malnourished-looking women often shown in TV news stories about North Koreans in Pyeongyang. Instead, plump, smiling, timid, fair-skinned girls walked into the public’s heart.
Before long, some of the cheerleaders had their own fan clubs in the South. One, Ri You-kyeong, still has a fan club at Daum, an online community.
This year’s cheerleading squad is mostly new faces. These girls are much younger, said Kim Nam-il, one of the North Korean officials accompanying the squad, answering questions thrown at him by reporters at Friday’s women’s soccer game between North Korea and Germany.
Mr. Kim said the girls had practiced for 10 days prior to the games. He was reluctant to say how many hours the girls had put in, or how they’d come to join the squad.
(Park Mi-sun, 37, a member of North Korea’s brass band, answered that question the next day: The girls were chosen from universities around the country, and none of them volunteered.)
The cheerleaders themselves had little response to the questions being thrown at them. Instead, they ignored the reporters and waved at the curious South Korean crowds, yelling “We are one!” or “Nice to meet you!” or “Reunification!”
“Reunification” was definitely the theme. Even after the North Korean men’s volleyball team lost its second consecutive game Friday, the girls had no comment. Instead, they began singing songs such as “We Are One,” “See You Again” and “Our Nation’s Path Is Reunification.”
But once in a while, some of the girls would give their names and even say a few words. “We won and I am speechless with joy,” Jung Mi-hyang, an 18-year-old dance major, said after their women’s soccer team beat Germany 6 to 0.
Security around the cheerleaders ― mostly provided by the South’s National Intelligence Agency ― was tight, and reporters were often roughly and physically escorted away from them.
Even an accordion player was shoved away during a luncheon for the cheerleaders at the Inter-Burgo Hotel in Daegu Saturday morning. Lee Hee-won, 49, a Busan grocer, who was an authorized volunteer musician for the games but hadn’t been invited to the luncheon, was playing North Korean songs when security grabbed him and hustled him away.
“I just wanted the North Koreans to feel at ease and relaxed,” said Mr. Lee. “Through music, I wanted to make them feel at home.”
At that luncheon, some of the North Korean girls opened up and gave a glimpse of what they thought about Daegu and South Korea.
Ms. Park said the cheerleaders hadn’t seen much of South Korean culture, because they weren’t allowed to watch television. She added that she thought the buildings in Daegu looked “awkward.”
“I think South Korea has been too influenced by Western civilization,” Ms. Park said. “There’s nothing resembling our beautiful heritage.”
Many of the cheerleaders seemed puzzled by the dyed hair of many South Koreans. “I thought they were foreigners,” said Byeon Jung-hwa, 22, a junior at a cooking school in Pyeongyang. “I didn’t realize until they spoke to me in Korean.”
Kim Eun-joo, 20, a dance major, said that when she first arrived in South Korea, instead of feeling joy, she wondered why the South Koreans and the North Koreans had to cheer separately.
“Aren’t we one?” Ms. Kim asked. She said that the first thing that came to her mind was that “this country should reunify as soon as possible.”
Not everyone in South Korea has been charmed by the cheerleaders.
“It was great, at first,” said Park Jin-suk, 25, a viola player for the Daegu Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed for the North Koreans during Saturday’s luncheon. But she added, “They were very different from us.”
How so? “They seemed to be trained,” Ms. Park said, with a tone of uncertainty. “The North Koreans’ movement seemed awkward and artificial, as if they’d been heavily trained.”
“They’re pretty, but their looks seem to be artificially made,” said Shin Gyu-beom, a 22-year-old police officer assigned to guard the squad. “They don’t seem to have any individual movement of their own.”
If the two Koreas reunify, Mr. Shin said firmly, he doesn’t want a North Korean girlfriend.
by Lee Ho-jeong