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North Korean cheerleaders celebrate a performance by North Korean figure skaters Kim Ju-sik and Ryom Tae-ok at the Pyeongchang Olympics on Thursday.Nathan VanderKlippe

You could, for a moment, imagine that the North Koreans at the Winter Olympics are participants like any others.

They eat alongside other competitors in the dining room. They hang their national flag on the outside of an apartment building in the athletes village. Their figure skater plays guitar and takes questions from the foreign media. Their players on the women's hockey team, a squad comprised of players from both North and South Korea, even jam in the dressing room with their South Korean teammates to get pumped for a game.

"Our players were teaching them how to K-pop dance," said Sarah Murray, the Canadian coach of the team.

The North Koreans and South Koreans quickly became indistinguishable, Murray said, with new teammates chatting freely about food and daily life. "When you see them sitting at a table, you can't tell who is from the North and who is from the South. … They're mixed and they're laughing and they're just girls, you know? They're just hockey players."

North Korea maintains a hostile isolation from the rest of the world as it pursues nuclear weapons and remains under the control of a political regime the United Nations Commission on Human Rights says commits "crimes against humanity of an unimaginable scale." It also keeps a tight rein on what its people can say and do and where they can go.

At the Olympics, too, North Koreans are kept separate from others when they travel and sleep – some are bused every night to a distant mountain resort – and critics say the smiling pictures of the country at the Games should not be believed.

It's a "façade," said Casey Lartigue, Jr., international director of the not-for-profit Teach North Korean Refugees. He likens the North Korean delegation to hostages.

But in sending its people abroad, North Korea has shown remarkable savvy in adjusting public opinion about the nature of its regime. Not only are its athletes competing on the world's biggest stage – although their results have been poor – they are displaying a casual comfort with international society.

At the Olympics, North Korea's figure skaters Kim Ju-sik and Ryom Tae-ok performed to the Beatles, a surprise pick that "suits them," said Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte, who trained the pair for eight weeks last summer in Montreal. "It's energetic, it's unconventional."

The two North Koreans were "really good friends" who supported each other and were single-minded about skating, Marcotte said. "They just want to be the best that they can be."

They stood out primarily for how little they stood out.

"I learned that the boy [Kim] skater plays the guitar, and the girl [Ryom] likes theatre and arts production and shows," said Meagan Duhamel, the Canadian figure skater who trained with them and regularly drove them to practice and Pilates sessions.

"I would pick them up at their apartment, and the two skaters would be outside in the street practising the program with their headphones in their ears dancing around," she said. "I thought they were, like, dancing to Korean music. They said, 'No, no, it's our long program.'"

Duhamel is vegan, and the North Koreans were curious about her eating habits, often snacking on the protein bars she offered. "They really liked them," she said.

The pair travelled with a translator who was interested in Quebec history, suggesting he had access to the internet. The skaters lived with the translator, as well as a coach, in a single apartment, meaning someone was always watching.

But they were effusive about their experience in Montreal.

"They often compared the safety of Canada to how they felt with the safety of their home," Duhamel said.

It's the kind of correlation that makes North Korea sound like any other country.

They "want to project a degree of comfort and casualness, especially toward South Korea. They think that's good for their image," said Andray Abrahamian, a visiting fellow at Pacific Forum CSIS, an arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But, "they also don't want to give up control or some of the rigidity that defines how they run their society," he added.

At the Olympics, North Koreans are followed everywhere they go, including to the bathroom, by serious-looking older men – minders who track each move and utterance. At night, the athletes retreat to segregated quarters in the athletes village.

Meanwhile, at the end of a full day of clapping and singing, the 229 official cheerleaders accompanying the North Korean contingent board buses for a long road trip. More than 100 kilometres from the Olympic ice surfaces, they reach Inje Speedium, a motor-racing circuit and hotel tucked between low-lying mountains not far from the border with North Korea. Online reviews call it "remote" and "in the middle of nowhere." It has the look of a Bond villain's lair.

When North Korea decided to attend the Pyeongchang Games, those attributes suddenly became virtues. The hotel has just one entrance, which is now guarded by police who blocked The Globe and Mail from getting within 100 metres. A large banner warns that illegal demonstrations are prohibited.

Inside, a Speedium spokesman said, televisions have been deactivated and, though internet access is available, none of the cheerleaders possess devices to go online. A car museum a short walk from the hotel said no North Koreans have come by to take a look. The hotel said the cheerleaders usually stay in their rooms.

To a racing fan, the Speedium might be a mountain resort. For the North Koreans, it looks more like a prison – or, at the very least, a political ideology classroom.

At home, North Koreans must regularly attend political training, where they are typically lectured on material disseminated by the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

It would be "stunning" if they were not subjected to something similar in Pyeongchang, said Christopher Green, an adviser for NGO the International Crisis Group, who has spoken with hundreds of North Korean defectors.

"I'm led to understand that they do have nightly education," he said. "All of the normal ideology things that are required to be done when you're in North Korea are also required in South Korea," with additional instruction in "how to behave" in enemy territory.

"You wouldn't talk about the North Korean leaders. You wouldn't talk about the hardship of North Korean society," he said. Nor would it be acceptable to say positive things about the political system in South Korea or about the United States.

North Korean cheerleaders have pointedly remained mute when U.S. Olympians compete.

Still, those who study North Korea are not surprised to hear that hockey players, for example, have not noticed minders intervening in conversations. Anyone steeped in the regime's propaganda since birth would have a clear idea of what is acceptable.

"They would be well-prepared to avoid or deflect any conversations that get remotely political," said Abrahamian, who has been to North Korea 27 times. "In a way, I suppose I'm surprised the minders are necessary at all over lunch."

With reporting by Cynthia Yoo

Two of North Korea's most senior officials were sat directly behind South Korea's president during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang Games, which have provided some respite from the tense relations between the two countries.

Reuters

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