Pyeongchang Olympics: S. Korea’s Pro-Unification Cheerleaders

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North Korea was once the bane, the thorn in the side, the sore point of the PR machine at the Pyeongchang Olympics Committee in South Korea. Just months ago, countries wary of rising inter-Korean tensions were expressing security concerns about the winter games, taking place in February and March 2018, because of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and missile tests.

Now, it seems North Korea has become a blessing in disguise: Not only will it participate in the Olympics, dramatically raising the hype, but an inter-Korean women’s hockey team will compete and march together in the opening ceremony. Cheering all this on will be the North Korean cheerleaders that North Korea has confirmed it will dispatch. But another sight visitors might find surprising will be the presence of another cheerleading squad: South Korean pro-unification supporters.

Pro-unification cheerleaders in South Korea during the Incheon Asian Games in 2014. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

The pro-unification supporters are members of various South Korean NGOs who advocate unification and gather at rare inter-Korean events to support both North and South Korean athletes. One of their last public appearances was in 2014 at the Incheon Asian Games, in which North Korea participated. At the time, the cheerleaders received an icy reception from authorities under the then-Park Geun-hye presidency, during which all civilian interaction, humanitarian aid and diplomatic channels with North Korea were shut down.

At the time of the Incheon games, it was reported that NGOs nationwide had joined hands to recruit supporters for the pro-unification cheering squad, ultimately forming a group of 100 cheerleaders who were, in particular, religious adherents including Christians, Catholics and Buddhists.

For the forthcoming winter games, civic organizations, including Incheon Peace & Welfare Network (IPWN), an Incheon City advocacy group, will create its own cheering squad based on experience gained during the Incheon Asian Games. The network is currently recruiting members.

IPWN secretary-general Lee Gwang-ho told Korea Exposé that the group would combine with other advocacy groups across the country and sing songs such as Arirang, Nice to Meet You and Our Wish is Reunification — classics famous in both Koreas.

South Korean pro-unification supporters surrounded by police at the Incheon Asian Games, Sep. 2014. The banner reads “Our wish is reunification.” (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

The groups will wave ‘unification flags,’ featuring the outline of the entire Korean Peninsula in blue, on a white background. The IPWN official said the group was “hopeful of meeting [their] North Korean counterparts,” but it is unclear what access the South Koreans will be given. During the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, they were confined to a single enclosure in the stadium, or surrounded by police.

IPWN, consisting of approximately 1,400 members, is an independent organization that carries out various activities in the Incheon region to promote the values of peace through community projects and events, as well raising awareness against the U.S. army presence in Incheon.

Another organization, the Southern Committee for the Fulfillment of June 15 Joint Declaration, has also announced the formation of a cheering squad for the Pyeongchang games. The pro-unification group, as its name suggests, supports the June 15th North–South Joint Declaration — signed between North and South Korea in 2000 — which calls for cooperation and civic exchange between the two sides. It, too, is currently recruiting members of the public.

The latest data regarding public desire for unification seems to show that a majority of South Koreans are in favor of it; but this sentiment is waning. In a 2017 study by the Korean Institute of National Unification, 57.8 percent of respondents said that unification was necessary, representing a drop of 11.5 percent from 2014.

Naturally, not everyone is happy about North Korea’s participation, including the South Korean women’s hockey team. The team’s coach is reported to have said that the sudden decision to create a joint team would cause “damage,” while some of the actual players expressed disappointment, noting that no consideration was given to their efforts (because the participation of North Korean players may mean fewer spots for South Korean players during matches).

Meanwhile, little is known about the identity of the North Korean cheerleading squad members bound for Pyeongchang. The only information so far is that 230 will be sent to cheer at events that feature both North and South Korean athletes.

The North Korean cheerleading squad has come to South Korea on three previous occasions: the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon.

Cover image: Female player from Team DPRK at the Incheon Asian Games held in 2014. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)

Raphael is a freelance journalist and fixer. He has an MA in Korean Studies from Korea University, and worked at Edelman Korea for three years representing some of South Korea's biggest conglomerates.