PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — They mostly sat, expressionless. When the crowd cheered, they remained quiet, looking forward. When the crowd sang, they sat in silence. When the crowd danced, they sat still. Only when the crowd was silent would they cheer.
That's what they were there to do. Cheer. A contingent of cheerleaders from North Korea, attending the 2018 Winter Olympics, made its presence felt before the festivities even began when the North Korean taekwondo fighters joined a group from the South as one team, under the united Korea flag, hoping to entertain the early spectators. All of it seemed difficult to process for many South Korean spectators.
"This is a really odd sight," one South Korean man muttered under his breath.
The South's team went first, which got the cold crowd going in the early evening. As the first demonstration continued on stage, the 230-member cheering squad sent to the Games from North Korea positioned itself directly in front of the seating boxes housing the world's diplomats, including Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong Un and the first immediate member of the North's ruling family to set foot in the South. The North Korean team followed the South, though it was marked by a drastic stylistic difference highlighting force and power, compared to the grace and polish of their southern neighbors.
"Our athletes are doing great!" the 230 fans began to cheer, waving their North Korean flags. "Our athletes are doing great!"
Many South Koreans are skeptical of the North's motives in the Olympic unification efforts, thinking Kim Jong Un is using the opportunity to buy more time to pursue his weapons programs. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has countered this narrative, however, saying this is an opportunity to speak with one another and head down a road of reconciliation.
"Many considered it an impossible dream to have an Olympics of peace, in which North Korea would participate and the two Koreas would form a joint team," President Moon said in an address to the International Olympic Committee earlier this week. Hope is easy to find in the president's words, but when sitting among the North Koreans, it's clear unity may be more of an ideal than reality.
The North Korean cheering squad sat in two clusters Friday, in seven rows across two bleachers. The first six rows were filled entirely with women from Pyongyang, most appearing to be in their mid-20s. Their hair curled out of their beanies, their faces pale with blush applied to their cheeks. They all wore uniforms: a white and red beanie, a red jacket with blue and white accents, and pants that matched. Their shoes were white with either baby blue or pink accents, three stripes running down the side.
Sitting behind them was a row of seven older men, North Korean support staff meant to watch over the group, ensuring none of their people stepped out of line. As photographers stopped by their section to take their photo, they never acknowledged their presence.
The North Koreans remained silent as the ceremony kicked off. As the lights flashed, the music blasted and the fireworks ignited, their expressions never changed. They didn't talk to each other. They didn't laugh. They didn't smile. When a group went to the bathroom, they walked in unison down the stairs, shaking the metal bleachers, rumbling as one. At one point, "Gangnam Style" played across the PA system, and as the crowd around them danced, they stared forward.
"Are you enjoying the music?" I asked them.
Most of them pretended not to hear me. One looked at me, nodding her head in affirmation.
"Yes," she said before turning her eyes back toward the proceedings.
"It's like talking to a brick wall," a Korean reporter said to me with a laugh.
Their hands sat in their laps. Slowly, as the athletes were introduced, they began to take flags out of their bags. One of them was North Korea; the other was the unified Korean flag, white with a blue silhouette of the peninsula. They remained silent.
"It doesn't seem like they're having any fun," said one Korean spectator, sitting two rows in front of the North Koreans. In the distance, you could hear protestors outside, marching against the countries' walking under one flag.
The Korean athletes walked out last, and the North Koreans immediately stood up, waving their flags. In an instant, they began cheering, as if someone hit the on switch. They screamed and roared, not dissimilar to a group of teenage girls following One Direction. They broke into song, swaying back and forth in unison.
"We are one!" they sang loudly. "We are one!"
"Aren't you happy you came here?" one cameraman asked them.
They pretended not to hear him. One dropped her flag as they finished singing.
Throughout the course of the evening, the North Koreans switched between two modes: exuberance or silence, with no middle ground. When the crowd began to sing "Imagine," they initially turned on their candle lights, waving them back and forth. By the time the chorus hit, they stopped, even though the rest of the crowd was swaying back and forth.
"You may say that I'm a dreamer," the song continued. "But I'm not the only one."
Most of the women stared forward. One, the same who answered my question earlier, began to well up. She wiped away the tear with her glove.
Two-and-a-half hours later, the opening ceremony was over, the Olympic torch lit, the fireworks ignited, the cheers cheered. As the crowd began to file out, one woman among the North Koreans stood up. She looked across to the other bleachers, where the other half of the cheerleaders sat. With a wave of their arms, the 230 women broke into song.
"It was great to see you!" they sang, swaying back and forth, clapping in unison. "We'll see you again!" They waved toward the stage and then toward the crowd that had gathered to watch them sing.
"You all look so pretty!" one South Korean woman yelled.
Three songs later, the women began to file out of their seats, stepping in unison down to the concourse. A crowd formed around them as they walked two-by-two, arms locked, out of the stadium. They waved goodbye to the spectators surrounding them.
"We'll see you all again! We'll see you again!" they said before disappearing through a tunnel and into the night.