There is no country in the world better than North Korea at theatrics and spectacle. And there is perhaps no better stage than the Winter Olympics for the North to display its chops.
Last year the country was wrapped up in a worldwide performance as they launched ICBMs and tested a nuclear weapon, much to the ire of their neighbors and other global powers. But this year North Korea seems to be changing course. After a year of provocations, comes a charm offensive and an offer to field a joint team under one flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
But even as the theatrics of the Olympics will warm hearts and provide North Korea a platform to soften its image, over 30,000 North Korean defectors living in South Korea will be watching. Their presence will tell a darker story behind the theatrics.
North Korea’s attempts at smoothing over the past two years with their Olympic delegation, which will include an “Army of Beauties.” This “army” is a cheering squad comprised of 230 attractive, tall North Korean women from elite universities.
It is clear that North Korea is trying to send a message through these women. It is an attempt to show the world that all is well within its borders, that the North Korean people are well fed, healthy and beautiful.
The two Koreas will also send a unified delegation during the opening ceremonies under one flag. They’ll field a joint women’s ice hockey team. There will no doubt be other signs of unity between the two countries that will indeed be heart warming.
For over 30,000 North Korean refugees watching this global performance, there will be a different tale to tell of their homeland, North Korea. Many have spoken out against their former country in a damning UN report, which details in amazing consistency the gruesome methods of torture that the regime employs.
In the thousands of interviews and interactions I have had with North Korean refugees, people have told me of death, cannibalism and the hellscape that North Korea has become.
It will, without a doubt, be an emotional moment when the two countries enter the Olympic arena under one flag. But such images should not overshadow the truth present in the lives of over 30,000 defectors who have fled desperately for their lives. Perhaps they, with us, can witness the union of the Koreas in this year’s Olympics, beyond its theatrics, and look forward to a day when peace and harmony will extend beyond a single, international event.