Five-ring Circus

North Korea’s Cheer Squad Is a Mesmerizing, Charming Propaganda Victory for Kim Jong-un

North Korea's cheerleaders cheer during the women's preliminary round ice hockey match between Switzerland and the Unified Korean team during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung on February 10, 2018.   / AFP PHOTO / JUNG Yeon-Je        (Photo credit should read JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images)
North Korea’s cheerleaders cheer during the women’s preliminary round ice hockey match between Switzerland and the Unified Korean team during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung on February 10, 2018.
JUNG YEON-JE/Getty Images

If you’ve been watching the 2018 Winter Olympics, you have probably seen at least fleeting glimpses of the North Korean cheer squad, which has been working hard to dominate every grandstand in Pyeongchang. The all-female squad is hard to miss. Its members, most of whom wear identical red outfits, break into elaborate synchronized cheer routines at the slightest provocation. They sing, they sway, they pose for photographs: They are the first breakout stars of these Winter Games.

North Korea does mass synchronization better than any other country. The nation periodically hosts an elaborate festival in which tens of thousands of grandstand spectators hold up colored placards in unison to create massive, stadium-sized mosaics.

I suppose it is easy to mastermind mosaics on a large scale if participation is compulsory and missing your cue carries a hideous punishment, but, still, impressive stuff.

The North Korean cheerleaders who have entranced Pyeongchang are a different manifestation of the regime’s fetish for matchy-matchy synchronization. To be clear, the cheerleaders’ enthusiasm is likely compulsory and the cheerleaders themselves are surely being monitored ceaselessly by state minders during their stay in Pyeongchang. But as the great geopolitical strategist Milhouse Van Houten once put it, I fear to watch yet I cannot turn away.

The cheer squad—approximately 230 members strong—does it all. Here they are relatively sedate, waving and swaying from a seated position as they sing in unison:

Here they incorporate props, covering their faces with identical masks as they sing yet another song:

This next clip offers  a good view of the cheer squad’s fan-dancing contingent. The fan dancers are clad in green-and-yellow, as if they’ve been kidnapped from the Rio Games.

And for much of the past hour, I’ve been watching and re-watching the clip below, in which a dude who seems to be sitting with the cheer squad by mistake gets sucked into its energy and tries ineptly to match it:

(Maybe he’s their coach or something, but it’s funnier to imagine that he’s just some random guy. Let me have my fantasy!)

As Vanessa Friedman at the New York Times notes, while the cheer squad has traveled outside North Korea before for regional athletic events, the Pyeongchang Games mark their debut on the world stage. Why did the cheerleaders make the trip? Because North Korea is an oppressive totalitarian state that hopes to use every facet of its involvement in the Pyeongchang Games for propaganda purposes. The objective is to project strength, confidence, and unanimity, in the process extending the influence and stability of the Kim regime. By bringing the world’s most tightly choreographed cheerleaders to Pyeongchang, Kim Jong-un hopes to draw positive media attention, boost his and his country’s respective reputations, and not so subtly tout the superiority of collectivism to individualism. Kim is a global pariah, but his prized cheer squad has drawn the attention of journalists worldwide—including me. It looks like his ploy is working.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Everything That Could Go Wrong at the Most Politically Tense Olympics in Decades

Is the Olympics Host City Pyongchang, PyeongChang, or Pyeongchang?

Get to Know a New Olympic Event: Mixed Doubles Curling