With the Winter Olympics well underway, there have been many comments on social media that portray the happenings of the event. One of the more popular topics I’ve seen is on the North Korean cheerleaders. Hundreds of women, dressed in red athletic attire were placed within the stadium where they sang their happy cheers and accompanied them with precise and rhythmic movements. These cheerleaders were another element added to the olympics to make the experience more enjoyable for all, or so I thought.
Obviously, I know of the horror that people are facing within North and South Korea, but these cheerleaders genuinely looked happy. I thought maybe they were the ones that made it out and they were simply enjoying their time at the olympics surrounded by their friends. While scrolling through twitter, I saw a few videos of these cheerleaders performing with funny captions. This video was turned into a meme and circulated around twitter in a joking manner. When I saw this tweet by VICE News, I originally ignored it as I thought it was just another meme. After re-reading the caption, I was very surprised to see someone reporting seriously on this case.
This video was captioned “After a 2005 performance, 21 members of North Korea’s cheer squad were sent to a prison camp for speaking about what they saw in South Korea.” It portrayed footage of the cheerleading team throughout the years, dating back as early as 2002. This was when these cheerleaders made their first appearance. While the video itself reiterated what was said in the caption, it mostly mentioned the current situations of the cheerleaders. I wanted to know more about the claim that was made within the tweet. This is when I decided it was time to take it to google.
The first thing I typed into Google was “North Korean Cheerleading Squad” in hopes of getting some background information before I tried to discover the truth of this claim. The results came pouring in, and news reporters throughout the world were trying to discover and report information on this group of cheerleaders. This topic was so hot that reporters were making articles about each and everything they could when it came to this cheerleading squad.
I decided to click on the first few results, just to see what was out there. The first one I stumbled upon was called “The darker side of North Korea’s perfectly timed cheerleaders” While this wasn’t an official news site, but rather someone’s personal website on wordpress, it was able to provide some background information. This website is the first place that introduced the idea that the cheerleading squad is used as a “charm offensive.” Zoe Drewett, the author of the article, also stated that “They are reportedly even supervised when they go to the toilet and eat breakfast – not making a move without at least one other North Korean teammate with them as well as a South Korean government monitor.” Since this website wasn’t “official”, I decided to move on.
The next link I discovered was titled “For the North Koreans in Pyeongchang, there is a limit on human connection.” I found this article on “thestar.com” and it seemed to have a good deal of information off of first glance. This article took the chance to describe some of the olympic athletes first-hand and other countries athlete’s opinions of them. It introduced the same information we found in the last post about how they’re strictly monitored. It then introduced the same claim we’re exploring. “In 2006, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported that 21 North Korean cheerleaders who attended sporting events in South Korea in either 2002, 2003, or 2004 had been sent to a prison camp for speaking about what they had seen.” This sentence showed that the year it happened wasn’t even confirmed, but it contained a hyperlink to an article about this information.
Following the hyperlink that was located within the last article, I found an article titled “twenty-one North Korean cheerleaders imprisoned” which was posted by TAIPEI times, located in Seoul. This was posted February 18th, 2006. It seemed to be the hard-copy version of the newspaper claim that was made. It included this sentence: “citing a North Korean man who recently fled to China, South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper said the 21 young women had been detained about last November in the same prison camp where the man had been held.” So this article was written on a claim that was made by a North Korean man who recently fled to China. Solid Evidence? Or not. The very next line was “South Korea’s National Intelligence Service didn’t immediately confirm or deny the report.” This clearly isn’t getting me anywhere. All of these claims were made based off of someone’s memory.
I decided to take it upon myself to find the Chosun Ilbo news report. I typed into google “Chosun Ilbo cheerleaders arrested” but only articles from the current olympics were surfacing. I added in 2006 and found exactly what I was looking for. “N.Korean Cheerleaders Banished to Camps” was posted on February 16th, 2006. This article used names and specific instances to describe the situation. Exactly what I needed to start finding solid information.
It started off stating that Lee Myeong-ho was the man who escaped to China that reported this claim, but something that helped to solidify this claim was that he was a former inmate with the cheerleaders. Lee explained that inmates weren’t allowed to talk to each other, so he wasn’t able to confirm that they were imprisoned because they talked about South Korea, but that was the rumor that was going around.
Another defector explained the cheerleaders are picked among university students, propaganda squad members and music school students from good families. Before they were sent to South Korea, they had to sign a pledge bearing their 10 fingerprints that says if they are going to an enemy country — Pyongyang’s epithet for the South — they must fight as soldiers of leader Kim Jong-il and never talk about what they have seen or heard in South Korea once they return. They agree to accept punishment if they break the promise.
While this fact-check in no way allowed us to confirm why the North Koreans cheerleaders went to prison, we were able to confirm that 21 cheerleaders were sent to prison based on some level of betrayal. Through the persistent searching and referring to links within articles, we were able to discover the real deal on the North Korean cheerleaders. Now, when I see them acting all happy and cheery on my TV, I will know that I should feel sorry for them, as they aren’t able to live fully.