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At the practice rink, North Korean figure-skating pair enthralls South Korean crowd

At the practice rink, North Korean figure-skating pair enthralls South Korean crowd
From CBC - February 13, 2018

There were gasps at the Gangneung Ice Arena during practice. Volunteers and journalists sat up in their chairs. One woman covered her mouth as a North Korean pairs figure skater executed a lift.

Polite applause typically follows pairs Olympic figure-skating teams during these routine training sessions. But lately, there's a heightened anticipation when the announcer introduces one particular team at the rink: "Tae-ok Ryom and Ju-sik Kim, from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea."

"Ohh, North Korea!" several female South Korean volunteers murmured excitedly, holding their smartphones aloft. It was the only practice the volunteers bothered to record that day, they conceded.

Curiosity is surrounding the pair of North Koreans, with therink's practice sessions inviting intense interest from South Korean spectators.

The Canadian-coached duo of Ryom, 19, and her partner Kim, 25, flashed broad smiles during practices last week as they launched off to French-Canadian chanteuse Ginette Reno's brassy pop ballad Je n'suis au'une chanson.

Their sunny attitudes, and expressiveness on the ice, have made them stars in the eyes of South Koreans unaccustomed to seeing their Northern neighbours display much warmth. They appeared to be "having fun," one volunteer said.

Smiling faces

"She's smiley face. Smiley face is good," she said.

Ryomearned thenickname "Angel of Smiles" in the South Korean press after she gave a cheery wave to reporters upon arriving at the athletes village.

The skaters and other North Korean athletes have fallen into a good-natured camaraderie with fellow Olympians, including their South Korean competitors.

In a selfie posted to his Instagram, South Korean pairs skater Alex Kang Chan posed with Kim, tagging the photo: "With my bro from up North." Both athletes can be seen making peace signs.

Although Northand South Korea remain technically at war, the Winter Games in Pyeongchang have been hyped as a potential "Peace Olympics." Last month, North Korea agreed to send 22 athletes and a delegation to participate in the global sports event hosted by their arch-enemies in the South.

The two Koreas agreed to fielda joint North-South women's hockey team. At a rare lunch between South Korean president Moon Jae-in and North Korean president Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong on Saturday, Kim extended an invitation to Moon to visit Pyongyang.

But there's been resistance to liberal President Moon's overtures to the North, with protests outside some Olympic venues. A younger generation objects to the outreach, fearful South Korea is being played by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

Dtentelikely to be short-lived

Harry Kazianis, director of defence studies at the Centre for the National Interest in Washington, D.C, does not expect this dtente will last past February.

"Come springtime, North Korea is going to test missiles," he said. "They are going to build up this reservoir of goodwill, but I do not think it's going to be enough for South Korea to turn the other cheek."

At the Gangneung Ice Arena on Sunday, there was resentment from some South Korean sports fans about the international attention athletes from the North are receiving.

@matt_kwong

Canadian coach for pair

Aiming for a personal best

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