North Korea’s cheerleaders are drawing eyeballs and sparking controversy

North Korea’s cheerleaders are drawing a ton of attention at the 2018 Winter Olympics, and it’s easy to see why. With their carefully timed, synchronized chants, cheers, and routines, it’s understandable that so many people on social media are talking about them. The mainstream media has been similarly fixated on the North Korean cheerleading squad, with numerous write-ups about their decidedly odd presence at the games.

Their cheers frequently rang out during the unified Korean hockey team’s 8-0 loss to Switzerland on Saturday, seemingly undeterred by the shellacking. Several videos of their choreographed movements and songs have gone viral on Twitter, and the Washington Post has even translated some of their words so that their meanings are more clear to an English-speaking audience.

But given the North Korean government’s draconian and brutal policies toward dissent, and the big question of why it sent the cheerleaders to Pyeongchang―likely, to score a public relations win that obscures the country’s various, grievous human rights abuses―some people weren’t so thrilled with the positive coverage.

It’s worth noting that in 2005, reports suggested that members of the cheerleading team were themselves sent to labor camps, as punishment for discussing a trip to South Korea with their fellow North Koreans after returning home.

Even for the seemingly cheerful red-clad performers, living under the North Korean government poses serious and severe risks of draconian punishment, including being sent to camps reportedly rife with torture, starvation, rape, and death. This threat of harsh reprisal might help explain just how much boundless energy and seamless coordination the squad has demonstrated so far, even when the results from the unified Korean team don’t quite measure up.

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