PYEONGCHANG, February 14, 2018 – A personal best and a standing ovation from a crowd they couldn’t have imagined competing in front of until just recently. This is how North Korean pair figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik started off their first Olympic Games, where they have already become nothing short of icons.
The pair recorded a personal best of 69.40 in Wednesday’s short program, where they skated to a guitar rendition of the Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’. The reason they have become such a point of fascination at PyeongChang 2018 is that so many cannot imagine a day in their life at all, in what is seen as the most closed off country in the world.
But in participating at the Winter Olympic Games just south of the demilitarized zone that separates the peninsula, North Korea has projected a more open image, marching with South under a unified flag in the opening ceremony, sending a delegation of hundreds, including 220 red clad identical cheerleaders and the sister of leader Kim Jong Un.
Among the 22 North Korean athletes though, the stars have no doubt been smiling, Ryom, 19 and Kim, 25, who are the only ones competing at the Games through merit rather than political wild card. The figure skating pair qualified for PyeongChang 2018 with a sixth-place finish at last year’s Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany. In the end though, they did need a special invitation as their National Olympic Committee had not entered their names in time for the Olympic deadline.
It was only decided one month before the start of PyeongChang 2018 after trilateral talks between the two Korean NOCs and the IOC, that North Korea would be attending the Games, and marching under a unified Korea flag no less. This was also the moment the combined North and South Korean women’s hockey team was born, but while the unified COR girls have been the focal point of the women’s hockey tournament so far, the quality on show was not outstanding, as they lost their three matches with a combined goal difference of 20-1.
On the ice on Wednesday, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik proved that their story wasn’t just one for the unified headlines though. The pair executed an expressive, technically sound short program, and reached a personal best with the entire South Korean crowd at Gangneung Ice Arena cheering them on. They finished the day in 11th position, but their place in the top 16 that would make it through to Thursday’s long program was never in doubt. When their scores came up on the screen, the cheer was the loudest of the day by far, topping the welcome South Korean pair Kyueun Kim and Alex Kang Chan Kam had received earlier that morning, opening the short program.
“Our goal was to make it to the long program and we are very happy to have done so,” Kim said afterwards speaking to North Korean national broadcasters.
The questions, especially from foreign media, were always going to be about more than just sport though. “We feel very comfortable here in the South, everything is excellent, and we want to thank the South Korean fans for supporting us and showing so much dedication.”
After the competition, Ryom and Kim joined the other 15 qualified pairs for the drawing of lots for the long program. They were as smiling and relaxed in their DPR Korea tracksuits as any of the other skaters in the room, as they drew 5th position. Today at least, their ‘day in the life’ was very similar to their competitors from China and Russia, Canada, USA and France.