The group of young North Korean women in white cheer-leading uniforms scrambled from their buses and climbed a pole to pull down a welcome banner during an international athletic competition in South Korea in 2003.
The sign, put up by local residents, showed a photo of then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il shaking hands with former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. The women, dubbed a “legion of beauties” by the South’s media, told reporters they were angry that an image of their “Dear General” may be soaked by rain.
The scene underscores the conflicting symbolism of North Korea’s decision after a nine-year hiatus to send a cheerleader squad to the South for the Asian Games this year. While many South Koreans associate them with a period of detente that also included the development of a joint industrial park and a cross-border tourism program, the women serve as a propaganda tool for a regime trying to divert global attention from human rights abuses and nuclear weapons.
“The dispatch of young, playful and gorgeous cheerleaders is intended to help enhance the North’s dark, poverty-stricken and totalitarian image abroad,” Kim Jung Bong, a political science teacher at Hanzhong University in the South, said by phone today. “The North thinks that if the cheerleaders succeed in changing that perception among South Koreans toward the North positively, that will pressure President Park Geun Hye to engage the North more actively through concessions.”
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South Korea said yesterday it would accept the cheerleaders along with a team of North Korean athletes that had already been scheduled to participate in the games in Incheon this September. At the same time, South Korean Unification Ministry spokesman Kim Eui Do criticized what he called the North’s irrational claim that its nuclear weapons development can safeguard the people of both Koreas.
The 2003 cheering squad was the second of three groups to appear in the South at sporting events, with members handpicked from the children of ruling party and military officials. In 2005, they included Ri Sol Ju, then a teenager and now the country’s first lady. Ri was unveiled in 2012 as the wife of current leader Kim Jong Un, who took over the country upon the death of his father Kim Jong Il in late 2011.
While the South’s media covered the squads favorably, the 2003 incident with the banner was a reminder of the deep psychological and emotional divide the two nations would face in the event of unification, with two starkly different systems in place since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce.
The period of improving relations between the two Koreas hit turbulence in 2006 after the North conducted the first of its three nuclear tests and began touting atomic development as a deterrent against what it calls U.S. hostility.
Following its latest underground detonation in February last year, the North threatened to strike the U.S. and South Korea with nuclear missiles, claiming it had succeeded in making its warheads smaller and lighter.
The sinking of a South Korean warship and the North’s bombardment of a South Korean island in 2010 have also damaged ties. The North denies a role in the sinking while saying it was provoked into firing artillery at Yeonpyeong island.
North Korea’s said in its statement yesterday on the plan to send cheerleaders that hostility on the peninsula has “reached the extremes,” calling for “reconciliation and unity.”
“I think this is one of North Korea’s negotiation tactics,” said Hideshi Takesada, a professor at the Institute of World Studies of Takushoku University in Tokyo. The North is aware South Korea wants to improve relations because ties between Kim’s regime and Japan have improved, he said.
Japan decided July 3 to ease sanctions on North Korea after the North said it would begin a new probe into abductees and other Japanese in the country.
South Korea says the North must end its pursuit of nuclear arms, acknowledge its attack on the South’s Cheonan warship and apologize officially for the 2008 death of a tourist at Mt. Geumgang, among other concessions, before it can resume economic assistance last seen during the detente.
North Korea’s gesture comes days after Park hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Seoul, where both made clear their opposition to the development of nuclear arms on the Korean peninsula. China is the North’s biggest political ally and economic benefactor and has sought to revive international aid-for-disarmament talks it chairs.