Former North Korean cheerleader describes orders to penetrate 'heart of the enemy'

Nicola Smith
North Korean cheerleaders during the Winter Olympics - Getty Images AsiaPac

A former North Korean cheerleader has described how she was indoctrinated in the art of propaganda in order to make the squad.

The reclusive regime’s so-called “army of beauties” has generated both amusement and angst during several perfectly choreographed performances at the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

Revelations by Han Seo-hee, now a defector living in the South, that she was psychologically trained to promote North Korean ideology will fuel criticisms that the cheering squad has been deployed by Pyongyang as a tool for political manipulation.

In an interview with the BBC, Ms Han said cheerleaders, who are handpicked from elite universities and loyal upper-class families, were taught how to publicise North Korea’s socialist and nationalist agenda, known as “Juche".

“We were separated for different kinds of psychological training,” she said.

“We were told we should not be surprised or shocked by another world. In particular, the training’s focus was that we shouldn’t forget our home country, not even for a minute.

“We were not just there to cheer, but we were told to go into the heart of the enemy.”

The presence of more than 200 cheerleaders at the Winter Olympics has been divisive, not least because South Korean taxpayers are footing a $2.6m bill to host them and other North Korean entertainers.

While their antiquated but eye-catching routines have been a source of fascination, critics have warned that they are being used by a communist dictatorship to drive a wedge between South Korea and its allies.

Meet Kim Jong-un's 'army of beauties'

Others point out that behind their smiling faces and synchronised show lies the tragic reality that they are trapped performing for a regime that grants them few freedoms.

At each high-octane performance, the cheer squad has been accompanied by stony-faced minders who rise from their seats awkwardly during their chirpy chants.

These minders apparently sprang into action last week when a Kim Jong-un impersonator, who gave his name as “Howard from Australia”, danced in front of the shocked-looking cheer squad at an ice hockey game.

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He was tackled by three burly security officials, thought to be North Korean, before being ejected from the stadium by unamused police officers.

“I walked past the cheerleaders and waved but then three rough-looking guys, not in uniform (and) who I suspect were North Koreans, came out of nowhere and grabbed me by the arm,” the Kim double told AFP.

They became upset when he waved the unified Korean flag at them, he continued, and started kicking him in the shins.

Howard said he had just wanted to “bring some laughter”, adding: “If you don’t like my face, there’s nothing you can do about it – I was born this way.”

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