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Meet Kim Jong-un's 'army of beauties' - North Korea's cheerleader squad is going to the Winter Olympics

The inclusion of an all-singing, all-dancing Olympic cheerleading squad as a key element of the most significant diplomatic breakthrough on the Korean Peninsula in two years may at first seem like an odd choice for two countries who are still technically at war.

But the role of cheerleaders, chosen on the basis of their beauty and loyalty to the regime, has in the past been an important political tool for North Korea as it seeks to manipulate its image to the outside world during major sports events.

North Korean women cheer their men's basketball team during a game against the Philippines at the 14th Asian Games in Pusan, September 30 , 2002. Their beauty, talent and graceful manners have made North Korea's official cheerleaders very popular in South Korea  Credit:  REUTERS

The presence of a cheering squad in a high level North Korean delegation to Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February, was announced on Tuesday during the first talks between the countries since December 2015.  

Aware of the propaganda value of the regime’s most attractive women performing choreographed moves in the stadiums, North Korea’s state-controlled media has in the past crowed about southerners being captivated by the “squads of beauty.”

North Korean cheerleaders show their support to their team before the quarter-final match against Germany in the FIFA Women's Football World Cup in Wuhan, in China's central province of Hubei, 22 September 2007  Credit:  AFP

In a sign of the high esteem placed on the job, Ri Sol-ju, now the wife of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un was reportedly a member of a 101-strong cheerleading squad at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon, South Korea, when she was just 16.

Typically cheerleaders have been about 20 years old, and selected from a good family background, although not generally from high-ranking families, and are often plucked from among university or music school students.

The tradition began in 2002 during the Asian Games in Busan, a South Korean port city, and the squads were popular entertainment at several other high profile sporting events until they became the centre of a political spat between the North and South at the 17 th  Asian Games in 2014.

North Korean women hold national flags to cheer at the Daegu Universiade Games in Daegu, South Korea, 2003 Credit:  AP

Pyongyang had wanted to send a 350-strong “army of beauties” to support the country’s athletes but raised the ire of the South Koreans when it demanded Seoul cover the cheerleaders’ expenses and provide appropriate security.

The North then accused the South of openly slandering the decision to send the squad, “asserting it is a group for political operation in the south and for creating discord.”

North Korean cheerleaders attending the Pyeongchang Olympics this year will be in good company, however. The US is also sending cheerleaders from the University of Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the International Olympic Committee has also raised the status of cheerleading, granting it provisional recognition last year, and paving the way for it to become an official Olympic sport in the future.