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A North-South Friendship Blossoms Among Korean Skaters

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 2/14/2018 Eun-Young Jeong, Louise Radnofsky

© kim hong-ji/Reuters GANGNEUNG, South Korea—The pairs figure skating competition that begins Wednesday will be a four-way battle between top-flight pairs from China, Germany, Canada and Olympic Athletes from Russia. But the source of greatest fascination is a pair with almost no shot at a medal: North Korea’s Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik.

Ryom and Kim are the only North Korean athletes to have qualified for these Games on merit. Their possibility of reaching Pyeongchang signaled the prospect of their country’s broader peaceful cooperation with the Games, months before leaders hammered out a final deal for North Korean participation with the International Olympic Committee last month.

“I’ll make sure to live up to expectations,” said Kim in an interview with The Wall Street Journal after his morning practice on Tuesday. Both athletes have been frugal with their words in front of press, but Kim, whose official International Skating Union biography says he is 25 years old, said he was “happy” to be competing in South Korea and said his practice “went OK.”

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The first South Korean pair to compete at the Olympics, Kim Kyu-eun and Kam Kang-chan, said they have struck an unusual friendship with the skaters from North Korea, taking a selfie together and giving Ryom a birthday gift.

“It wasn’t as difficult to become friends as I had expected,” said Kam, 22, in an interview after practice on Tuesday, adding that the North and South Korean pairs regularly greet each other and sometimes exchange small talk on skating, training, Olympics and the weather.

Kam posted a picture of him and the North Korean male skater on his Instagram last week. The two wore jackets from their respective country teams and made the same “V” sign with their hands. “With Ju Sik after practice” Kam wrote on his Instagram, accompanied by a few emoticons, including North and South Korea’s flags.

Kam says he suggested taking the photo after practice. “I had finished putting on my shoes and we had some time left, so I called Ju Sik over and said, ‘Let’s take a selfie.’ ”

Earlier this month, Ryom received an assortment of cosmetics as a birthday present from the South Korean Kim. Kim, who is 18, said Ryom “really liked” the present and thanked her.

Both Korean pairs have received coaching from Canadian Bruno Marcotte, who also works with many of Canada’s top pairs, including his wife, Meagan Duhamel, and her figure skating partner, Eric Radford.

“They’ve greeted us warmly since we first met,” said South Korea’s Kim, who had previously seen the pair at other competitions. “We got used to each other and started exchanging a few words,” she said, adding that the North Korean couple had sometimes greeted them first.

Ryom and her partner Kim are an outlier to most North Koreans, who are not allowed to leave the country unless approved by the regime. But even for them, there are limits to their exchanges with the outside world that shed light on the reality faced by most North Koreans. All North Koreans athletes are reported to be watched carefully by minders in case they defect to the South. There have been incidents of former North Korean athletes and cheerleaders defecting to the South.

The North Koreans list Bruno Marcotte’s sister Julie as their choreographer, but their permanent coach as Kim Hyon Sun, and their permanent training base as Pyongyang, where they train for 36 hours a week.

At an unusually well-attended practice at Gangneung Ice Arena Tuesday morning, the North Korean pair received attention and applause from hundreds of local spectators. They drew cheers for their more difficult elements, and appeared comfortable with their sudden spotlight, unlike other North Korean athletes or the hundreds of cheerleaders here as part of the deal.

Ryom, 19, waved at a crowd of mostly South Korean spectators around the rink several times as she approached her coaches after finishing her music rehearsal. The crowd responded with loud cheers, some even giving a standing ovation.

There have been a handful of North Korean pairs before Ryom and Kim, but they are by far the most successful, becoming the first to win a medal at an ISU event when they took bronze at the Four Continents Championships earlier this year.

Ryom started skating in 2008 at the skating club of Taesongsan and has had two previous partners in pairs. Kim started in 2001 at the same club and has had one past partner. Both are Pyongyang-born and were inspired to take on figure skating as children after seeing performances of the sport, according to their athlete profiles.

They will skate their short program here to “A Day in the Life” by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, performed by Jeff Beck, and their free skate to “Je suis qu’une chanson” by Diane Justler, performed by Ginette Reno.

Asked if he had given any advice to the South Korean pair as he was leaving the rink on Tuesday, the North Korean Kim said, “I told them we should all put on our best effort to do a good match.”

Write to Eun-Young Jeong at Eun-Young.Jeong@wsj.com and Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com 

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