Strategy The 229 women in North Korea's 'Army of Beauties' at the Winter Olympics are hand picked, unpaid, and guarded 24/7

  • Published:

The North Korean cheerleaders at the Winter Olympics, nicknamed the "Army of Beauties," are heavily vetted and guarded to discourage defection.

The cheerleaders must be taller than 5'3. play

The cheerleaders must be taller than 5'3.

(Carl Court / Getty Images)

• The North Korean cheerleaders at the Winter Olympics have captured the world's attention.

• They've also prompted criticism of what many perceive as the media's overly-exuberant coverage of the authoritarian regime's Olympic delegation.

• The cheerleaders are all young women who've been hand picked based on certain stringent physical requirements.

• The cheerleaders all go through an intense vetting process, to minimize the risk of defection.

• Along with the North Korean athletes, they're heavily guarded at the Pyeongchang Games.



North Korea's highly-synchronized, chanting squad of 229 cheerleaders has accomplished its mission.

The large group's coordinated cheers haven't helped North Korea's athletic prospects — they've yet to win a medal.

But they did cause a stir in the media. The press has received a lot of blowback for what critics see as its chipper coverage of North Korea's Olympic delegation. Business Insider reported that a range of news organizations, from CNN to Reuters, were criticized for their "surprisingly cheery" reporting on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister — and propaganda minister — Kim Yo Jong. Fox News, The Washington Post, and BBC also received criticism for comparing Kim to First Daughter Ivanka Trump.

And that dose of normalization may have been the goal for the North Korean regime, which has tortured, killed, and imprisoned millions over the years and has recently threatened nuclear war with the United States.

North Korea's "army of beauties" have certainly garnered much attention for their coordinated routines, Business Insider's Jim Edwards reported. But, despite the cheerleaders' matching smiles and upbeat chants, the individual members of the squad will likely be in danger if they slip up or attempt to defect.

Here's a look into the rigorous requirements it takes to join the squad — and what the cheerleaders' closely guarded experience is like:

The gig isn't a year-round job, and it's not a paid position. The squad typically convenes for months-long training sessions before big events, like the Olympics.

The gig isn't a year-round job, and it's not a paid position. The squad typically convenes for months-long training sessions before big events, like the Olympics. play

The gig isn't a year-round job, and it's not a paid position. The squad typically convenes for months-long training sessions before big events, like the Olympics.

(John Sibley/Reuters)

Source: The New York Times



There are stringent physical requirements for joining. The cheerleaders must be taller than 5'3, and have a round face, large eyes, and clear, high voices.

There are stringent physical requirements for joining. The cheerleaders must be taller than 5'3, and have a round face, large eyes, and clear, high voices. play

There are stringent physical requirements for joining. The cheerleaders must be taller than 5'3, and have a round face, large eyes, and clear, high voices.

(Carl Court / Getty Images)

Source: The Guardian



The squad members are all their late teens or early 20s. Former cheerleader Ri Sol-ju — Kim Jong-Un's now-wife — was 16 when she performed with in the group in 2005.

North Korea's participation in the Winter Games follows a year of increased nuclear tension between North Korea and the rest of the world. play

North Korea's participation in the Winter Games follows a year of increased nuclear tension between North Korea and the rest of the world.

(Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Source: CRI



The prospective cheerleaders must also be able to pass a background check. Anyone with relatives who defected is automatically out of the running. The same goes for cheerleaders with family ties to Japan.

The prospective cheerleaders must also be able to pass a background check. Anyone with relatives who defected is automatically out of the running. The same goes for cheerleaders with family ties to Japan. play

The prospective cheerleaders must also be able to pass a background check. Anyone with relatives who defected is automatically out of the running. The same goes for cheerleaders with family ties to Japan.

(Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Source: CRI, Business Insider



Many of the cheerleaders are recruited from Kim Il-sung University, while others have moved up the ranks through other performing groups.

Many of the cheerleaders are recruited from Kim Il-sung University, while others have moved up the ranks through other performing groups. play

Many of the cheerleaders are recruited from Kim Il-sung University, while others have moved up the ranks through other performing groups.

(Carl Court / Getty Images)

Source: Medium, PRI



North Korean defector and ex-cheerleader Han Seo-hee said she was first picked out to perform in an orchestra group at the age of eight. From there, she was ultimately recruited to join the cheerleading squad.

North Korean defector and ex-cheerleader Han Seo-hee said she was first picked out to perform in an orchestra group at the age of eight. From there, she was ultimately recruited to join the cheerleading squad. play

North Korean defector and ex-cheerleader Han Seo-hee said she was first picked out to perform in an orchestra group at the age of eight. From there, she was ultimately recruited to join the cheerleading squad.

(Carlos Barria/Reuters)



As a performer, Han received elite perks like bananas and cosmetics. She said, when it came to training in rehearsal halls, the coaches were nice, but "expected perfection."

As a performer, Han received elite perks like bananas and cosmetics. She said, when it came to training in rehearsal halls, the coaches were nice, but "expected perfection." play

As a performer, Han received elite perks like bananas and cosmetics. She said, when it came to training in rehearsal halls, the coaches were nice, but "expected perfection."

(Vadim Ghirda/AP Images)

Source: Medium, PRI, The New York Times



The New York Times reported that the cheerleaders also view having the opportunity to travel as "a privilege" and a major draw.

The New York Times reported that the cheerleaders also view having the opportunity to travel as "a privilege" and a major draw. play

The New York Times reported that the cheerleaders also view having the opportunity to travel as "a privilege" and a major draw.

(Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Source: BBC, Business Insider, Medium, PRI, The New York Times



At the Olympics, the group's performances function as blatant propaganda. South Korea has put forward smaller cheerleading exhibitions, but for North Korea, it's more about projecting strength than entertaining the crowd.

South Korean cheerleaders at the Pyeongchang Games. play

South Korean cheerleaders at the Pyeongchang Games.

(Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Source: The New York Times



Like the other North Korean athletes, the cheerleaders are never left alone. They must travel with both a South Korean and a North Korean monitor, at all times, and have to use the bathroom in groups.

Like the other North Korean athletes, the cheerleaders are never left alone. They must travel with both a South Korean and a North Korean monitor, at all times, and have to use the bathroom in groups. play

Like the other North Korean athletes, the cheerleaders are never left alone. They must travel with both a South Korean and a North Korean monitor, at all times, and have to use the bathroom in groups.

(Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Source: Business Insider



If any cheerleader gets out of line, they could be punished. In 2006, 21 cheerleaders were reportedly sent to a prison camp for discussing their trip to South Korea after they returned home.

If any cheerleader gets out of line, they could be punished. In 2006, 21 cheerleaders were reportedly sent to a prison camp for discussing their trip to South Korea after they returned home. play

If any cheerleader gets out of line, they could be punished. In 2006, 21 cheerleaders were reportedly sent to a prison camp for discussing their trip to South Korea after they returned home.

(Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Source: Business Insider, Taipei Times



And defection is a nearly impossible prospect for the cheerleaders. The 500-person North Korean delegation includes numerous minders and informants. Their job is to surveil the athletes and cheerleaders, and ensure no one runs off.

And defection is a nearly impossible prospect for the cheerleaders. The 500-person North Korean delegation includes numerous minders and informants. Their job is to surveil the athletes and cheerleaders, and ensure no one runs off. play

And defection is a nearly impossible prospect for the cheerleaders. The 500-person North Korean delegation includes numerous minders and informants. Their job is to surveil the athletes and cheerleaders, and ensure no one runs off.

(Carl Court/Getty Images)

Source: Business Insider



And, even if a cheerleader manages to get away, they'd potentially be condemning their family back home to imprisonment or death. North Korea's propensity for collective punishment is actually why Han ended up fleeing the country.

And, even if a cheerleader manages to get away, they'd potentially be condemning their family back home to imprisonment or death. North Korea's propensity for collective punishment is actually why Han ended up fleeing the country. play

And, even if a cheerleader manages to get away, they'd potentially be condemning their family back home to imprisonment or death. North Korea's propensity for collective punishment is actually why Han ended up fleeing the country.

(Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Source: Medium



After her brother fled the country, Han and her parents knew that they might be targeted. They ultimately followed him into China in 2006.

After her brother fled the country, Han and her parents knew that they might be targeted. They ultimately followed him into China in 2006. play

After her brother fled the country, Han and her parents knew that they might be targeted. They ultimately followed him into China in 2006.

(Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Source: Business Insider, The New York Times, Medium



Subscribe to the Pulselive Newsletter!