For a few days in February, they will be the most fascinating, scrutinized athletes in the world.
Ryom Tae Ok, 18, and Kim Ju Sik, 25, will be faces of a nation that few on Earth know or understand: North Korea.
On Jan. 20, the International Olympic Committee approved the inclusion of 22 North Korean athletes for the PyeongChang Games, to be a part of a joint delegation with South Korea. That included Ryom and Kim, pairs skaters who were allowed in despite missing the registration deadline.
North and South Korea will march together at the Opening Ceremony under the name “Korea,” and a Korean folk song will play as a shared anthem. It offers a glimmer of hope that a thaw in the harsh geopolitical climate of the Korean Peninsula is underway. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un loves his sports, and especially figure skating, so the chance to show off his top athletes on the world stage may provide a window to greater understanding between his closed-off nation and the rest of the planet.
But will we learn much about these two skaters? It turns out, one North American already has.
Bruno Marcotte, coach of the Canadian ice skating team, saw Ryom and Kim for the first time a couple of years ago at an international event. (Unlike virtually all North Koreans, the skaters can leave the country to compete.)
“Whenever there’s a new team, you get curious,” he says, “especially a team from North Korea. OK, who are these guys?”
Then last year, he saw them again at the Asian Games in Japan. The pair won bronze. “I was blown away by how much better they got,” he says.
Marcotte, himself a former skater for Team Canada, decided to approach the two and congratulate them. Through a translator, he told them how good they looked. He told them he would be cheering for them.
“They were very surprised,” he recalls.
The next time Marcotte saw them was last March at Worlds in Helsinki. This time, the North Koreans approached him. They were fans of the Canadian world champion pairs team of Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford. They wanted to know if it would be possible to visit Montreal to train.
“My first reaction was I saw the potential of those skaters and I thought, ‘Yeah, sure!’ ” Marcotte says. “If it’s possible, that would be great. As a coach, it’s a great challenge to work with a younger team. And it’s always good for my own team when you bring a good team in. Everybody wins.”
The biggest challenges would be off the ice. Visas would have to be figured out. Marcotte didn’t even know exactly when in June they would arrive. The skaters would need a place to stay – never easy or cheap during the summer in Montreal – and it would have to be fairly close to the training rink. After all, it wasn’t like Ryom and Kim had drivers’ licenses or an Uber account. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to put North Korean skaters who spoke no English (or French) on a public bus. They had cell phones, but a Canadian SIM card wouldn’t work. The coach finally found an apartment and someone from the Canadianteam arranged daily pickup and transportation.</p