GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It was about 10 minutes before puck drop in the much-anticipated unified Korea women’s hockey team debut, when the North Korean cheerleaders stole the show.
Kanye West blared on the arena speakers, and the cheer squad of young North Korean women decked out in matching red and white outfits decided it was time for their first routine.
They waved small unified Korean Peninsula flags, and swayed in unison and sung " ban gap seup nee da," or nice to meet you.
The crowd was instantly transfixed.
“It felt like I was competing in my own country,” Jong Su Hyon, one of 12 North Koreans on the joint team’s roster, said of the atmosphere following Korea’s lopsided defeat to Switzerland.
The first weekend of the 2018 Winter Olympics included no shortage of remarkable moments.
American snowboarder Red Gerard nailed a thrilling frontside double cork 1080 on his way to a gold medal. Norway’s Marit Bjoergen skied her way into history after winning her 11th Olympic medal. And high-stakes diplomacy on the sidelines of the Olympics by South Korea President Moon Jae-in and high-powered North Korea officials has loomed large.
But the sights and sounds of the North Korean cheering squad at the Games may prove to be one of the most indelible memories of these Olympics.
» Kim Jong Un invites South Korean president Moon to visit
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un deployed the more than 200 women — dubbed in the Asian media as the despot’s “Army of Beauties" — to be part of the nation’s official delegation to the Games and cheer on their countrymen and women.
North Korea sent 22 athletes in figure skating, hockey, skiing and speedskating. Their presence here was not assured until just a few weeks before the Games opened. The IOC had openly spoken of doing everything it could to assure North Korea would be here, and South Korea agreed to share its women's hockey roster and to walk in as one Korea for the opening ceremony.
When the country's participation for athletes was finally settled, North Korea announced it would also send the cheer squad and that Kim Jong Un's 30-year-old sister, Kim Yo Jong, would head the delegation.
Regime-approved cheering squads have been around for years, and they are not without controversy.
In 2006, 21 members of a North Korean cheering squad that had traveled to South Korea for an international athletic event were sent to a prison camp for talking about what they saw in the South, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported.
Another cheerleader who represented North Korea at the 2006 Asian Athletics Championship, Ri Sol Ju, would go on to marry Kim Jong Un several years later.
» Outbreak of norovirus causes quarantine of 1,200 Olympic security guards
During Team Korea’s pummeling in hockey, members of the cheer squad were indifferent to the scoreboard.
When Korea managed to move the puck against Switzerland, they broke into chants of “go for it.” And after every Swiss goal, they implored their team to “cheer up.”
At short-track speedskating in the Gangneung Ice Arena on Saturday, the cheerleader group enthralled the crowd with their chants, songs and waves.
At breaks in the skating, the cheerleaders sang in unison to the delight of the home crowd, who gave them a rousing ovation at the end of each rendition.
American speedskaters Lana Gehring and Maame Biney also became instant fans.
“Oh my god, it was awesome,” said Gehring. “They were just doing their little chants and flag waves. I have never seen that before. And their (songs) are so in sync it is like they’ve been practicing them for years.”
» Winter Olympics 2018: When does it start, what is the schedule, how do I watch?
“They are really beautiful,” added Biney. “I really liked it.”
USA TODAY attempted to interview members of the cheer squad at both the hockey game and speedskating event. But the women offered only tight smiles and turned away.
Sung Baik You, spokesman for South Korea’s Olympic host committee known as POCOG, said the organization has changed seating assignments for events so large clusters of the North Korea cheer squad can sit together at the venues.
At this weekend’s hockey game, they sat in several clusters of 30 or 40 but managed to cheer in unison throughout the matchup.
“This doesn’t come from the official channel of POCOG,” said Sung, when asked his impressions of the squad. “But throughout the Games, I think they are going to attract a lot of interest from people.”