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Entertainment: Medal or not, North Koreans aim to shine

The skaters, Ryom Tae Ok, 19, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, have zero chance for a medal. But that is not their measurement of success.

Their aim was to finish in the top 16 among 22 pairs in the short program, enabling them to participate in the long program on Thursday. They accomplished their goal, finishing 11th in the short program with a personal best of 69.40 points from the judges.

Ryom and Kim come from the world’s most isolated nation, but, to a point, they appear open and expressive and embracing of outside influences. Their choice of music Wednesday was an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” as performed by guitarist Jeff Beck, and the mostly somnolent crowd responded by clapping along during the song’s signature tempo change.

“We could really feel the power and energy of the Korean people,” Kim said before the skaters hurried through an interview area without stopping. Still, they were clearly elated with their performance. Ryom jumped into her coach’s arms as she left the ice, and the pair stood and pumped their fists when their score was announced.

The skaters are the only two of the 22 North Korean athletes here to have qualified for these games by merit instead of wild-card entry. Advancing to the medal round confirmed their arrival here via skill instead of largesse.

“They’re not even close to medal contenders,” said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent Canadian coach who has assisted the North Koreans over the last year. “But I’m so happy they’re here because they belong here. They’re a world-class-level team.”

The notion that Ryom and Kim have achieved some international success as individuals “in some respects sits uncomfortably alongside our image of North Korea as the premier collectivist state in which the individual has no role or influence,” said John Nilsson-Wright, an East Asia specialist at Cambridge University and Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

“This question that many of us grapple with when we look at North Korea,” Nilsson-Wright said, “is to what extent as a sports person do you have the kind of autonomy and freedom and opportunity to express yourself as an individual in this very collectivist environment?”

South Koreans have expressed complicated feelings about North Korea’s participation in these Olympics. But individual North Korean athletes appear welcome — none more so than Ryom and Kim, who have been the subject of endless curiosity. Ryom, with her ever-ready smile and red wool coat, might have been the most photographed athlete arriving at the Games.

Some have found in her a comparison to another North Korean visitor, Kim Yo Jong — the sister of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un — who attended the opening ceremony and charmed the South Korea news media without ever speaking in public.

“North Korea will probably use the performance of the figure skaters to boast how much North Korea is getting international attention, just as Kim Yo Jong got the media following her and demonstrated to its people that North Korea has reached a certain status in the world,” said Kim Kyung-sung, president of the South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association.

At practice Tuesday, South Korean fans paid nearly $30 and filled the lower section of the Olympic ice arena, taking pictures with their smartphones and oohing, aahing and clapping as Ryom and Kim rehearsed their jumps, spins and lifts.

“I hope they will connect us together,” said Cho Da-in, 20, a student who also had a ticket to Wednesday’s short program. “We are one blood.”

Half an hour before Wednesday’s competition began, a North Korean news media contingent arrived, followed by a group of cheerleaders in their familiar red outfits, waving reunification flags.

When the pair took the ice to warm up, the cheerleaders waved North Korean flags. A group of fans chanted the skaters’ names and held up a banner acknowledging them, while bearing another sign that said, “Because One Korea.”

Han Mahn-chul, 59, a spectator and an engineering researcher from Seoul, the South Korean capital, said he was impressed that the North Koreans had qualified for the Games in a sport like figure skating. “It is kind of a sport that advanced countries excel at,” Han said. “That is the image it has. So the fact that a poor country like North Korea has good skaters is amazing.”

Ryom and Kim are under tight control. When they arrive by bus at the Olympic arena, a security detail flanks them, standing arm to arm, as they enter the building. But unlike the country’s cheerleaders, they are not being kept totally apart from outsiders.

The skaters waved jubilantly to the crowd before and after Wednesday’s routine. And on Tuesday, they walked without any monitors through an interview area, promising to speak more fully after the competition.

“There have been no inconveniences whatsoever, when it comes to life in the South area,” Kim, who with Ryom is competing for the first time in South Korea, said Wednesday.

Around other skaters, Ryom and Kim have shown a playful side. Recently, in a waiting room before practice, the North Koreans and their coach rolled their gloves into a ball and played an impromptu game of soccer to get their bodies limber.

On Feb. 2, when Ryom celebrated her birthday, Kim Kyu-eun, a South Korean pairs skater, gave her a gift of cosmetics. The North and South Koreans trained together last summer with Marcotte in Montreal, alongside pairs teams from Canada and the United States.

Kim Hyon Son, the North Koreans’ primary coach, cooked kimchi for the South Koreans in Montreal. And Meagan Duhamel, a two-time world champion pairs skater and Marcotte’s wife, took the North Koreans shopping.

“Everyone is really supportive of them,” said Alex Kam, the South Korean skating partner of Kim Kyu-eun. “It’s good to see how sports brings everyone together without boundaries.”

In their few international competitions, Ryom and Kim have remained assured and composed, as they were on Wednesday. They finished 15th at the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships.

Last September, they were self-possessed, if not flawless, in qualifying for the Olympics at a competition in Germany. There they traveled without security and sometimes left the rink unaccompanied by their coach or a team official.

In a sport that forbids political displays, Ryom and Kim on Wednesday did not wear pins commonly worn by North Koreans, depicting the former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the grandfather and father of the current leader.

Both skaters are listed on their official bios as students. They live in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, where the more privileged citizens live. At the qualifying event in Germany, Ryom declared, “I want to continue to improve until I become world champion.”

There is considerable room for improvement. For one thing, the North Koreans, who seldom compete abroad, have found it challenging to train with three other Olympic pairs teams on the ice at the same time. There have been a number of near collisions.

“One of the questions they ask me is, ‘What can we do to get better?'” Marcotte, the coach, said. “My first answer is, they need to compete more often. The more they are exposed to competition, they will understand what they need to get their scores better and the more familiar they will be to the judges.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.