It’s been an odd few days in East Asia. Amid a series of shifting allegiances in the region, North Korea managed to top all of these in oddness with the announcement that it was sending a “cheering delegation” to an international sporting event in the hopes of improving North-South ties.
Over the past few weeks, Pyongyang has issued threats against the United States and South Korea surrounding the anniversary of the beginning of the Korea War, launching several short-range missiles as well to underscore its displeasure. Just recently, it insisted that despite international bans, it maintains the sovereign right to test missiles. On Monday, however, a different tone was emanating from the Hermit Kingdom, one of goodwill towards its neighbor in the South.
Specifically, South Korea is hosting The Asian Games, a sporting event that will host athletes from 40 countries around the region beginning in September. Earlier this year, North Korea announced that it would be taking part in the competition, sending athletes to participate in all events. Now, according to an announcement from the government, those athletes won’t be alone. “We have decided to dispatch a cheerleading squad along with the athletes to the 17th Asian Games in order to improve relationships between the North and the South and to create an atmosphere of national reconciliation,” Reuters reports the state-run KCNA news agency as declaring.
In a separate statement, the North Korean government sought to show that it is being the more rational of the Koreas when it comes to the prospect of reunification. “It is necessary to put an end to all kinds of calumnies and vituperations that foster misunderstanding and distrust among the fellow countrymen, to begin with,” one particularly vocabulary-rich part of the KCNA article reads. “An end should be put at an early date to such an abnormal situation in south Korea in which the desire of the people from all walks of life for reunification is dampened and the hostility against the DPRK is incited through the racket for ‘eliminating forces following the north.’”
This isn’t the first time that North Korea has dispatched cheerleaders to international events in order to bolster their country’s image, in what Reuters calls “tightly choreographed routines and messages of peace and unification.” In 2005, the country sent 101 cheerleaders to the Asian Athletics Championships. In 2003, a squad of cheerleaders puzzled South Koreans attending the University Games in South Korea when they expressed outrage over a crooked picture of Kim Jong Il that was left in the rain. “How could you place our general in such a place?” CNN quoted one cheerleader as saying at the time. “He deserves only respect. We cannot stand for this.”
The 2005 contingent, which also went to South Korea, also reportedly included the now-wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In July 2012, after months of speculation, North Korean media referred to Ri Sol-Ju finally as the “comrade wife to Marshal Kim Jong Un.” During the Games, “cheerleaders wore Nike caps, danced with South Korean college students, and attended a dinner party with government officials. There’s speculation that she also might have participated in an inter-Korean teenagers’ event in 2003 to plant trees.”
Marring the story of the cheerleaders are persistent rumors that one group of cheerleaders was sent to a prison camp for talking about what they saw during their visit to the South. First reported in the conservative Chosun Ilbo newspaper in South Korea, the story of the twenty-one members of the cheering squard being detained was never fully corroborated. North Korea’s prison camps have, however, been verified as existing, making up part of a systematic violation of human rights that one U.N. panel member compared to the atrocities of Nazi Germany.
The cheering delegation announcement comes after a weekend in East Asia that saw adversaries speaking kindly towards each other and harsh words between allies. On Thursday, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced a small amount of sanctions relief towards North Korea after progress on talks about Japanese citizens kidnapped to North Korea during the Cold War. But North Korea’s main ally, China, had little praise for Pyongyang while meeting with South Korea. In a communique released on Thursday, the two countries emphasized their “firm opposition to the development of nuclear weapons on the Korean penninsula.” All three countries are involved in the stalled Six Party Talks designed to convince North Korea to relinquish its nuclear arsenal.