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Insane pressure on North Korean teen

THEY’RE a pair of skaters who love reading, music and have a soft spot for the leader of their adopted home — Justin Trudeau.

But the charmed life of anonymity and ice rinks is all about to change for North Korean athletes Ryom Tae-ok, 18, and Kim Ju-sik, 25, who look set to carry the country’s sporting ambition on their slight shoulders.

The talented duo qualified for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Germany last year, however appeared set to miss them after the country failed to register. Now Kim Jong-un’s New Year about face means the pair will “probably participate” next month, according to North Korea’s IOC representative, Chang Ung.

World-class skating coach Bruno Marcotte, who trained the team in Montreal ahead of their qualifying performance, said he hopes they will be able to enjoy the experience given the political backdrop.

“Whenever they skate well they get so emotional and there’s so much joy and happiness,” Mr Marcotte told news.com.au.

“They put a lot of pressure on themselves every day. The ultimate pressure was to qualify for the Olympics. When they go there they have nothing to lose … I really hope they find that energy to skate free.”

It won’t be an easy feat for the duo who don’t have driver’s licences or credit cards and are accompanied everywhere by a representative of the North Korean skating federation as a translator-cum-coach-cum-chaperone.

Ryom will turn 19 the week before the games and Mr Marcotte said he speaks to them via the translator who accompanies them on the ice.

“The biggest challenge is I have to take care of everything,” he said. “The logistics of their stay, their transportation, I had to do a lot of organisation. I was lucky enough to have a lot of help.”

Despite the differences, they have good equipment and he works as a “consultant” alongside a Russian-trained North Korean coach who shows them videos of the best athletes in the world.

“The one thing I was pleasantly surprised with was how positive they are when they train. They train hard and the coach is strict but not in a negative way. The demand is high but the skaters always come to the rink with such a positive attitude and they just want to learn. They’re so willingly committed to train as hard as they can,” Mr Marcotte said.

He predicts the main challenge will be keeping them away from the media and retaining the psychology of “being in the moment”.

“It’s important people remember they’re not going as a favour — they actually earned their sport. So on a sports level, they belong in that competition.”

Sport has long been a national point of pride in North Korea, with Kim Jong-il reportedly bowling a perfect 300 and nailing five-hole-in-ones on his maiden round of golf.

His son Kim Jong-un has developed sporting prowess even further with medallists at the London 2012 Olympics dedicating their golds to him, including weightlifter Kim Un-guk who said he “won first place because the shining Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un gave me power and courage”.

Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell said cars with yellow licence plates on the streets of Pyongyang can be gifts bestowed on those who have given “glory to the country” and Olympic gold winners are known by name.

However he has seen no evidence of athletes punished for poor performance despite unconfirmed reports they can be threatened with a move to lower quality housing, reduced rations or coal mines. A 7-0 drubbing of the North Korean football team by Portugal in a live broadcast was said to have earned the team a six-hour public shaming from the Sports Minister.

Mr Cockerell said North Koreans don’t have unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve but expects the pair will feel pressure like anyone on the world stage.

“Everybody wants to do well. They don’t want to show themselves up representing their country,” he said.

“They’re not a winter sports powerhouse so there’ll be no expectation. They don’t have a sports channel that will dedicate itself to that. It’s not the World Cup or the Summer Olympics — those are much bigger — but it’s still very positive.”

This week, North Korea said it was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in the first talks with South Korea since 2015. Political analysts are divided on whether it’s a genuine olive branch or a cynical attempt to split the US-South Korean alliance by shutting the US out of the talks.

The International Paralympics Committee will meet at the end of January to decide whether it will grant a wildcard entry to North Korea. Another two North Korean athletes will compete in the World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in Germany starting on January 21, South Korean media reports.

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