GANGNUENG, South Korea — There has been hope for a political thaw on this divided peninsula with a combined Korean team at the opening ceremony and in women’s hockey. There has been boundless intrigue about North Korea’s all-female cheering squad. And on Wednesday, there will finally be a much-anticipated performance by North Korea’s only elite athletes at the Winter Olympics.
The figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok, 19, and Kim Ju-sik, 25, are scheduled to compete in the opening round of the pairs competition. They come from the world’s most isolated nation but, to a point, they appear open and expressive and embracing of outside influences. Their choice of music is an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” as performed by the guitarist Jeff Beck.
They have zero chance for a medal. Everyone is clear about that. But that is not the measurement for success. The aim for Ryom and Kim is to finish in the top 16 among 22 pairs in the short program, enabling them to participate in the long program on Thursday.
They are the only two of 22 North Korean athletes to have qualified for these Games by merit instead of wild-card entry. Advancing to the medal round would validate their preparation over the past year and confirm their arrival here via skill instead of largesse.
“They’re not even close to medal contenders,” said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent Canadian coach who has assisted the North Koreans over the last year. “But I’m so happy they’re here because they belong here. They’re a world-class-level team.”
The notion that Ryom and Kim have achieved some international success as individuals “in some respects sits uncomfortably alongside our image of North Korea as the premier collectivist state in which the individual has no role or influence,” said John Nilsson-Wright, an East Asia specialist at Cambridge University and Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
“This question that many of us grapple with when we look at North Korea,” Nilsson-Wright said, “is to what extent as a sports person do you have the kind of autonomy and freedom and opportunity to express yourself as an individual in this very collectivist environment?”
South Koreans have expressed complicated feelings about North Korea’s participation in these Olympics. But individual North Korean athletes appear welcome, and none more than Ryom and Kim, who are the subject of endless curiosity. Ryom, with her ever-ready smile and red wool coat, might have been the most photographed athlete arriving at the Games.
Some have found in her a comparison to another North Korean visitor, Kim Yo-jong — the sister of the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un — who attended the opening ceremony and charmed the South Korea news media without ever speaking in public.
“North Korea will probably use the performance of the figure skaters to boast how much North Korea is getting international attention, just as Kim Yo-jong got the media following her and demonstrated to its people that North Korea has reached a certain status in the world,” said Kim Kyung-sung, President of the South and North Korean Sports Exchange Association.
At a practice on Tuesday, South Korean fans paid nearly $30 for tickets and filled the lower section of the Olympic ice arena, taking pictures with their smartphones and oohing and aahing and clapping as Ryom and Kim rehearsed their jumps and spins and lifts.
“I hope they will connect us together,” said Cho Da-in, 20, a student who also had a ticket to Wednesday’s short program. “We are one blood.”
While the North Korean skaters are under tight control, they are not being kept totally apart from outsiders, as are the country’s Olympic cheerleaders.
When South Korean spectators waved to Ryom and Kim after Tuesday’s practice, they waved back. And while a monitor dressed severely in black awaited them as they left the ice, the North Koreans then walked by themselves through an interview area. They even said a few cursory words to reporters: they were satisfied with practice and would speak more fully after the competition.
Around other skaters, Ryom and Kim have shown a playful side. Recently, in a waiting room before practice, the North Koreans and their coach rolled their gloves into a ball and played an impromptu game of soccer to get their bodies limber.
On Feb. 2, when Ryom celebrated her birthday, Kim Kyu-eun, a South Korean Olympic pairs skater, gave her some cosmetics as a gift. The North and South Koreans trained together last summer with Marcotte in Montreal, alongside pairs teams from Canada and the United States.
Kim Hyon-son, the North Koreans’ primary coach, cooked the staple kimchi for the South Koreans in Montreal. And Meagan Duhamel, a two-time world champion pairs skater and Marcotte’s wife, took the North Koreans shopping.
“Everyone is really supportive of them,” Alex Kam, the South Korean skating partner of Kim Kyu-eun, said on Tuesday. “It’s good to see how sports brings everyone together without boundaries.”
The North Koreans will face enormous scrutiny on Wednesday. They would not be the first skaters to succumb to nerves at the Olympics. But in their few international competitions, they have remained assured and composed. Ryom and Kim took a bronze medal last month at a second-tier event in Taiwan called the Four Continents championship and finished 15th at the 2017 world figure skating championships.
Last September, they were self-possessed, if not flawless, in qualifying for the Olympics at a competition in Germany. There they traveled without security and sometimes left the rink unaccompanied by their coach or a team official.
In a sport that looks askance at political displays, Ryom and Kim also did not wear pins commonly worn by North Koreans, depicting the former leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the grandfather and father of the current leader.
Both skaters are listed on their official bios as students. They live in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. In Germany, they spoke repeatedly to a handful of reporters covering the event, with Ryom declaring, “I want to continue to improve until I become world champion.”
There is considerable room for improvement. For one thing, the North Koreans, who seldom compete abroad and are skating in South Korea for the first time, have found it challenging to train together with three other Olympic pairs teams sharing the ice. There have been a number of near collisions, including one on Tuesday between Ryom and a Chinese skater.
“One of the questions they ask me is, ‘What can we do to get better?’” Marcotte said. “My first answer is, they need to compete more often. The more they are exposed to competition, they will understand what they need to get their scores better and the more familiar they will be to the judges.”