By Jack Golub
I was skeptical when North Korea joined the Olympics. I still am. What I’m really struggling to wrap my head around, though, is the disciplined, dainty 229-women strong squad of cheerleaders. By now I’m sure you’ve seen their chants and songs, sometimes singing and swaying to them even while other music blares over the loudspeakers. You might have heard about how they walk in neat lines, go to the bathroom in small, orderly groups and don’t engage with anyone outside of their government handlers. What is going on?
In reading reports, I’ve come across a surprising number of people who find them exciting or enthralling. One South Korean teenager remarked how it was her first time being up close to anyone from the North. She said it instilled in her how the South and North are really “one people.” The North Koreans call them the “army of beauties.” They are selected based on strict criteria that doesn’t sound too different at first from what one might expect from an American cheerleading squad. They have to be a certain height (above 5-foot-3), good looking, good performers, and then also not have family members who live outside of North Korea.
The consensus seems to be that the cheerleaders are an attempt by the North Korean government to humanize themselves and their country. They’re supposed to make us realize that look, those people up there are real too. And maybe their insane dictator isn’t so crazy after all. That’s a nice goal. It really is. I love the idea of using sports to influence politics. Sports can provide an avenue for diplomacy that isn’t otherwise available. It’s in the best interest of worldwide peace that North Korea engages authentically in diplomatic relations, instead of spewing antagonistic threats. I wish I could believe that the “army of beauties” was a human olive branch, and not an extension of the army.
I don’t think the cheerleaders themselves have sinister intentions. I hope they’re having a good time. If it weren’t for the propaganda machine of the North Korean government, they wouldn’t get to travel south and watch the Olympics. They are a walking, singing, smiling, beautiful, installment of fake news. After all, an army of beauties is still an army. Regardless of their individual intentions, the cheerleaders are an attempt to conjure a warm, personal image of a cold, heartless government. It’s not shocking that a dictatorship that lets millions of its people starve doesn’t quite get what it looks like to be friendly. The harsh constraints on the cheerleaders’ behavior demonstrate the utter lack of empathy and compassion from Kim Jong Un and co.
Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t felt a need to send an American cheerleading squad. We might not have universal healthcare or a fair and sensible immigration policy or just policing or good schools for all children or an inextinguishable right to vote here in America, but at least we have a better image than North Korea. However, the U.S. isn’t standing on the sidelines. Instead, giant American corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have gobbled up advertisements everywhere. Coke didn’t bring cheerleaders, yet they too are pushing their message. Their attempts to humanize themselves and be appealing utilize the Olympic athletes themselves. How many Olympians drink coke on a daily basis? How many North Korean cheerleaders are so cheery at home? Hmmm…
It’s easy to get angry with the North Korean government and to distrust their motives. While there is a big difference between sugar coating oppressive dictatorship and sweetening the image of fat and high fructose corn syrup filled foods, North Korea isn’t the only one staging a media offensive on the battleground of the Olympics. The Olympics are supposed to be about the pinnacle of human achievement – the best we as a species have to offer athletically. That makes for a great marketing opportunity.
Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.