North Korea's Olympic Hopefuls Include A Pair Of Figure Skaters : The Torch Pair skaters Ryom Tae Ok, 18, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, qualified last year for the Winter Games. They'll learn this weekend whether they'll compete in Pyeongchang.

North Korea's Olympic Hopefuls Include A Pair Of Figure Skaters

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North Korea and South Korea will make a show of unity next month when the South hosts the Winter Olympics. The two countries made a deal at the inner-Korean border today. They will field their first ever joint Olympic team - a women's ice hockey team. They'll also march together under a unified Korean flag at the opening ceremonies. There'll be 550 people in North Korea's delegation. That includes a cheering squad, taekwondo performers and athletes. A North Korean figure skating pair has already qualified for the games. NPR's Elise Hu has more about them.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: The North Korean regime doesn't let most its citizens ever leave the country, but its top athletes have competed around the world. Last year, in Japan...


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Representative of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim.

HU: ...Twenty-five-year-old Kim Ju Sik and Ryom Tae Ok, who's 18, skated their way to a bronze medal at the Asian games. They also competed in the world figure skating championships.


HU: Then in Germany at the end of 2017, they placed sixth in an event that qualified them for the Winter Olympics.

JUN MICHAEL PARK: They were, like, smiling and hugging and just celebrating. And it was really kind of, like, you know, touching to see those kind of human interactions.

HU: South Korean Jun Michael Park is a photojournalist who covered the qualifying event. When the duo gave a press conference and no translators were available, Park played interpreter.

PARK: I was really nervous just coming in contact with the North Koreans because I'm not allowed technically.

HU: South Koreans are forbidden by the government to even place phone calls to North Korea because of a Cold War-era law that's still on the books. But South Koreans and now the rest of the world are paying attention to this pair. They're the only North Korean athletes to qualify for next month's games. Seong Moon-jeong is a researcher at South Korea's Institute of Sport Science who studies inter-Korean sports.

SEONG MOON-JEONG: (Through interpreter) It's almost impossible for people outside the country to know how they grew up as athletes and also about how the North Korean infrastructure is supporting the athletes.

HU: Seong briefed South Korean diplomats ahead of talks with North Koreans about the Olympics.

SEONG: (Through interpreter) 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.

HU: This weekend, the International Olympic Committee is meeting near Geneva to decide whether the North Korean pair can compete as a late entry in next month's games in South Korea. Photographer Park says he's rooting for them.

PARK: You know, there should be more interactions - more human interactions. And maybe that will lead to better understanding.

HU: As he interpreted the North Koreans' Korean language to English for throngs of press, he could hear the 70-year breakup of the Korean Peninsula in their vocabulary.

PARK: I think their form of Korean - of the Korean language is maybe a little bit more pure. In South Korea, we have a lot of English words - just foreign words that we use without even thinking about.

HU: How much foreign exposure North Koreans get is directed by the regime, which historically has used international showcases as propaganda opportunities. But 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 is fittingly, I read the news today - oh, boy. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.


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