GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> A pair of smiling North Korean skaters has carried out lifts, death spirals and other difficult moves during practices ahead of the Winter Olympics, drawing applause from South Korean spectators at Gangneung Ice Arena on Saturday.
The duo, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, is the focus of intense media attention as they were the only North Korean athletes who were initially qualified to compete in the Pyeongchang Games before their Olympic committee missed a confirmation deadline. The International Olympic Committee later allowed them and 20 other athletes to compete in the Feb. 9-25 games in special entries given to the North as it worked out a set of Olympics-related rapprochement deals with South Korea.
Unlike many other North Korean athletes who looked serious and rarely answered reporters’ questions, the duo appeared more natural and often smiled when they practiced and passed through a mixed zone — an area where athletes go through after games or training.
Ryom, who turned 19 today, already got the nickname “angel of smile” by some South Korean media outlets, after she waved and smiled broadly when she arrived at the Gangneung athletes’ village on Thursday evening.
“I feel good,” she told reporters in brief comments after training with Kim in the second practice at the venue since their arrival in South Korea.
Dozens of reporters, photographers and TV crews watched them perform at the Gangneung Arena’s underground training site. Volunteer workers and organizing committee staff, many of them South Koreans, also watched the duo’s practice, giving them a round of applause at least twice during about an hour-long session.
“It’s good that everyone is welcoming us like this,” the duo’s North Korean coach, Kim Hyon Son, told reporters.
Later Saturday, North Korean short-track speed skater Jong Kwang Bom practiced at the arena’s main ice rink. His sole teammate Choe Un Song didn’t show up, apparently due to an ankle injury during his first practice in Gangneung today. Their coach told reporters it was up to Choe to decide whether to compete in the games after watching his condition.
The Koreas are in a rare Olympics-inspired reconciliation mood after a year of heightened animosities over North Korea’s advancing nuclear and missile programs. They agreed to form a single women’s hockey team and have their athletes to parade together in the Feb. 9 opening ceremony. The North also plans to send a 230-member cheering group and a 140-person art troupe to the South during the games.
Some experts see the North’s cooperation in the South Korean-hosted Olympics as an attempt to use improved inter-Korean ties as a way to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions against North Korea.