22 North Korean athletes set to compete in PyeongChang

Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik of North Korea compete at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taipei, Taiwan. (REUTERS)

Nearly two dozen athletes from North Korea will march alongside South Korea under a unified flag at the Opening Ceremony to kick off the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, marking the first appearance in the Winter Olympics for the North Koreans in eight years.

Twenty-two athletes from North Korea are expected to compete in the Games, attempting to bring back a medal from the Winter Olympics for the first time in more than two decades.

Hwang Ok-Sil finished third in the women’s short track speed skating final at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France. Her bronze medal in the event marked just the second ever for North Korea. Han Pil-Hwa won a silver medal in the women’s 3,000m speed skating final at the 1964 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.

North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics has been sparse, however. It has sent just 16 total athletes to the last four Winter Olympics, and skipped the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, all together.

Its participation in the summer games is significantly better. North Korea sent 31 athletes to the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro, and more than 50 athletes to both the London games in 2012 and the Beijing games in 2008. North Korea has won 54 total medals in its summer games history.

Here’s who to watch from North Korea heading into the Olympics:

Women’s Hockey

Twelve of the 22 athletes from North Korea are doing something never before seen at the Olympic Games: forming a joint women’s ice hockey team with South Korea.

Neither South Korea or North Korea has qualified for the tournament since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1998, and are ranked No. 22 and No. 25 in the world, respectively. South Korea earned an automatic entry to the tournament as the host nation, yet is by far the lowest-ranked team among the eight-team field. Japan is the next lowest at No. 9 in the world.

At least three North Korean players will be required to dress and be on the 22-player active roster for each game.

Canadian — and former Minnesota-Duluth hockey player — Sarah Murray is serving as the head coach for the South Korean team. The move to add players from the North, she said, hasn’t been a popular one amongst the team — especially having been done so close to the games.

“I think there is a damage to our players,” Murray told South Korean reporters on Jan. 16. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.”

Figure Skating

Ryom Tae-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik qualified in September to compete in Winter Olympics, and are perhaps North Korea’s best chance at winning a medal.

The duo won bronze in pairs at the Asian Winter Games last February, and finished 15th at the world championships in Helsinki, Finland, just weeks later.

The pair then finished sixth at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany in September to earn their spot in the pairs competition in PyeongChang.

But after earning a spot in the Winter Olympics, Ryom and Kim did not register for the games by the International Skating Union deadline. However, the International Olympic Committee granted the pair a wild-card entry after the North agreed last minute to send a delegation to the games in early January.

Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, were both born and raised in Pyeongyang, North Korea, and have been skating together for three years. Most recently they have been training with Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte in Montreal.

Just last weekend, the pair won the bronze medal at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taiwan.

Cross-Country Skiing

Han Chun Gyong and Pak Il Chol are each entered to compete in the men’s cross-country skiing 15km freestyle event for North Korea. Both competed last April in Apatity, Russia, in a 10km freestyle event. Han and Pak finished 90th and 92nd, respectively, out of 92 finishers. The event, filled with mainly Russian competitors, also featured seven athletes from Belarus.

Ri Yong Gum will compete in the women’s 10km freestyle. She also competed in Apatity, Russia, in April in the 5km freestyle, finishing last among 83 finishers.

Speed Skating

Two North Koreans will compete in speed skating.

Choe Un-Song will compete in the men’s 500m, and Jong Kwang-Bom will compete in the men’s 1,500m.

Alpine Skiing

Three North Koreans will compete in Alpine Skiing events.

Choe Myong-Gwang and Kang Song-Il will compete in the men’s giant slalom and slalom events. Kim Ryon-Hyang will compete in the women’s giant slalom and slalom events.

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