The Olympic-style Asian Games open today in Incheon, South Korea, providing a flag-spangled stage on which to celebrate the universal sport of politics. North Korea has reestablished its dominance in this arena by first deploying, then withdrawing, their newest weapon—feminine charm.
In July, the North Korean Olympic Committee said they would send a 700-person contingent to the Asian Games, including the extremely popular 350-member cheerleading squad, their "army of beauties," as a gesture of good will. The modestly dressed, well choreographed cheerleaders stole the show last time they appeared in South Korea, at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships, garnering considerably more attention than the North's athletes. Hopes were understandably high for their return engagement.
Then in August, issuance from Pyongyang said athletes, coaches and referees would be coming, but no cheerleaders. Asia-wide disappointment and weak ticket sales ensued: Officials in Incheon listed an optimistic 30% sold on opening day.
North Korean officials were apparently forced to withhold their eye candy because South Korea pettily suggested the North should cover the travel and housing costs of their own people, like every other country that participates. In the past, South Korea has subsidized the entire North Korean contingent at sports events south of the border, cheerleaders and all, as a welcoming gesture. The North's proposal of expensing a record 700 people seemed to have worn out that welcome. The oversized flags Pyongyang submitted, and possibly mention of nuclear disarmament, were the final straw. So, fine, North Korea has sent 273 unattractive athletes and coaches to the Games, which continue through October 4th. It's unclear who's paying for their trip.
Cheerleaders at international sporting contests are a uniquely North Korean concept, predating Dennis Rodman's visit to that country. It's been suggested that North Korea hatched the idea of pretty state-run fans to fill out the empty stands and lukewarm support their athletes found when they competed abroad. The uniformly smiling cheer squad has appeared at three sports events previously in South Korea. The 2005 delegation of beauties included Ri Sol Ju, now the wife of North Korea's young leader Kim Jong Un.
But it's not like North Korea has a lock on attractive women. Inha Technical College in Incheon stepped up and has quickly rejiggered 200 of their flight attendants-in-training
to be medal ceremony girls, just as lissome and easy on the eyes as any North Korean cheerbot. For eight weeks, the girls have been "gripping books between their knees and balancing books on their heads while walking" to prepare for their duties at the medal presentation ceremonies.
Lee Young Hee, Professor of Aircraft Cabin Service Management at the Inha Technical College, said: "As the world will be watching the medal presentation ceremonies, we made them (the medal ceremony girls) practise their smiles to give a friendly impression. We also trained them in the way they walk and their posture when they deliver the medals, which we thought is very important."
As long as there are young women being made to smile, whether from the North or South, rich or abjectly poor, we can rest assured the highest ideals of international sport are being upheld. Let the games continue!