'We are one people': N. Korean skaters wow in dream Olympic debut
GANGNEUNG, South Korea, Feb. 14 (AFP) - North Korean skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik produced the performance of their lives to smash their personal-best score and qualify for Thursday's pairs final at the Winter Olympics.
Vociferously backed by 200 singing North Korean cheerleaders, the duo seduced the supportive crowd on their Games debut with an excellent execution of their short programme to the Beatles classic "A Day in the Life".
The 19-year-old Ryom and her partner Kim are the only two of the 22 North Korean athletes at the Games in South Korea to meet Olympic qualifying standards -- the rest got in on a special invitation as part of a landmark agreement that led to some calling this the "Peace Olympics".
And their skill was on full display at the Gangneung Ice Arena, the judges awarding them 69.40 points, destroying their previous highest score of 65.25 and propelling them into the free-skate final in 11th place.
The pair were initially marched past the media by a minder without stopping to discuss their electric performance. But just before they left, Kim said the support from the crowd -- North Korean cheerleaders and South Koreans -- had been a huge boost. "There has been no discomfort and now that we have competed, (we could see) how strong our Korean people can be when we are together," the 25-year-old said. "We are one people sharing the same bloodline."
- En masse toilet trip -
Before Kim and Ryom took to the ice, the all-female posse of North Korean cheerleaders, mobbed by media on a trip to the beach the day before, went en masse to answer the call of nature.
Dressed in red uniforms with red-and-white woolly hats, they filed out to the toilet with their ever-present minders waiting patiently outside, occasionally approaching photographers to stop them taking pictures.
In a perfectly choreographed move worthy of any gold medal, the cheerleaders emerged to take their seats just in time to start waving North Korean flags. Resplendent in matching black trousers and black-and-silver-sequined tops, Kim and Ryom looked relaxed and confident, giving the impression this was their fifth Olympics -- rather than their first.
"And now the two skaters from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea!" barked the stadium announcer, her voice drowned out by cheers from supporters from both Koreas -- two countries still technically at war.
Jeff Beck's haunting guitar strains filled the air as Ryom and Kim nailed their opening triple twist lift, generating a roar of approval from the stands.
At the end of their routine they smiled, waved and bowed, and jumped up in delight when their marks flashed up on the big screen. Watching from rinkside was their Canadian coaching consultant Bruno Marcotte, with whom they spent a spell training in Montreal last year.
In the run-up to the competition, he said his students were up against it. "Let's be honest, they're ranked 15th in the world. It's a really strong field," he said. "They were 15th at the world championships in Helsinki, if they come top 12 we'd be ecstatic."
The couple's presence at the 2018 Games was only confirmed following a sudden rapprochement between the two Koreas after tensions reached fever pitch as Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests.