North Korea’s participation at the 2018 Winter Games came with much fanfare (or uproar, depending on who you ask). As the Opening Ceremony approached, many around the world waited in anticipation to see how the nation’s 22 athletes would perform in PyeongChang.
Almost a week into the Olympics, however, North Koreans have been a virtual nonfactor. The united Korean women’s hockey team draws a great deal of intrigue each time it takes the ice, but thus far, players from either side of the border have been thoroughly outmatched, losing their first two games by a combined score of 16-0. The lone athlete to compete under North Korea’s flag so far, speed skater Choe Un-song, finished sixth in his heat in the 1500m and failed to advance into the next round.
This shouldn’t come as any surprise. After all, the North Korean athletes in PyeongChang came traveled south thanks to special invitations—a concession following inter-governmental talks between the North and South in hopes of easing the tension that has risen to the highest level in years on the peninsula. Almost none of the North Korean competitors in PyeongChang qualified for the Games on merit.
Except two: pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik.
Ryom and Kim earned a place at the Olympics with a sixth-place finish at last year’s Nebelhorn Trophy. They technically required special invites to compete in PyeongChang as well, as they failed to confirm their participation by the deadline and lost their spot to Japan. Nevertheless, the pair’s ability is certainly up to snuff, and they seem to improve each time they step onto the ice.
Following their impressive performance at the Nebelhorn Trophy, Ryom and Kim won medals at the Four Continents Championships last month, setting a personal best with 184.98 total points to finish in third place. The event did not feature any of the world’s top-10 pairs, but Ryom and Kim finished 15th at last season’s World Figure Skating Championships—and they considered their bronze medal at the Four Continents a disappointment.
“We didn’t reach the same level as we did as in practices,” Ryom said last month, according to the International Skating Union. “I’m really upset, and it’s a pity.”
The first North Korean pair to compete at the Winter Games since 2006, Ryom and Kim aren’t expected to contend for a medal. If the favored skaters make mistakes, Ryom and Kim are talented enough to capitalize. At the very least, they will likely turn some heads.
“We don’t expect a medal, just [that] we can improve and challenge ourselves,” Ryom said.
Of course, the interest surrounding the pair extends beyond their ability on the ice: their relationship with their southern counterparts (they have trained together, even cooking meals for each other), the scarcity of their media appearances and the secrecy of their training program in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.
They spent last summer training in Canada under Bruno Marcotte, who also coaches Canadian pair Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford as well as Americans Marissa Castelli and Mervin Tran. While in Montreal, Marcotte said Ryom and Kim experienced “culture shock,” asking why homeless people weren’t working and being confused by the concept of skating for pleasure, not for competition.
The North Koreans won’t shed any light on those mysteries when they perform at the Games. According to Marcotte, Ryom and Kim just want to prove that they belong in the Games—that they aren’t in PyeongChang as a glorified political stunt. If they continue their current course, they will certainly achieve that goal.
Who knows? Maybe they will add even more to the mystery. After South Korean figure skating legend Yuna Kim lit the Olympic flame to get the Games underway, could two visitors from Pyongyang win their nation’s first Winter Olympic medal since 1992?