'Friendly and kind' N. Korean skaters in Olympic spotlight

Amber WANG

Taipei (AFP) - North Korea's figure skaters Ryom Tai-Ok and Kim Ju-Sik are "friendly and kind and a little bit shy", South Korea's Kim Kyueun said Tuesday ahead of their hugely anticipated Olympic appearance.

The skater is competing with her partner Alex Kam in the pairs competition against the North Koreans at the Four Continents championships in Taipei this week, where the North Korean duo have been closely guarded from journalists.

Interest in them has skyrocketed since North Korea made a surprise announcement earlier this month that it was sending a team to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, even though the two sides are still technically at war.

South Korea's Kim told AFP she had spoken to the pair and admired their confident skating style.

"They are very friendly and kind and a little bit shy," she said, adding that she had chatted to the North's Ryom in the locker room at the tournament. The two young women are both 18.

She wished them the best ahead of the Games and said it would be a "very good experience" for them.

"I think usually it's very hard for North Korean people to come to South Korea, so I think it's very special that they are coming. We welcome the athletes," she said.

Ryom and Kim are among North Korea's top athletes and its only competitors to have officially qualified for a place at the February 9-25 Games.

While the majority of their compatriots are cloistered from the outside world, the pair have travelled globally to compete.

The Taipei competition starts Wednesday, but they have already been subject to intense media interest during practice sessions.

Tournament organisers have linked arms around them to protect them from being jostled by the press pack when walking from the arena to the hotel.

The pair have remained tight-lipped so far, with their team translator telling reporters they would not comment as they wanted to focus on the competition.

- Beatles soundtrack -

Currently ranked 36th in the world, Ryom and Kim are medal outsiders in Taipei but could have a chance after two higher-ranked Chinese pairs dropped out.

During practice Monday and Tuesday, they were dressed all in black and danced to songs including "Je suis qu'une chanson" by Canadian artist Ginette Reno.

They will perform to Jeff Beck's rendition of The Beatles' "A Day in the Life" for their short programme on Wednesday.

The pair skated to the same tracks when they secured their Olympic place last September at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany.

Seoul and the Games organisers have sought to promote Pyeongchang as a "Peace Olympics" to open the door for dialogue with the nuclear-armed North, which has traded threats with the US over the past year.

But President Moon Jae-In's peace efforts have met a backlash at home, with many accusing him of using athletes for political purposes and making too many concessions to his hostile neighbour.

Ryom and Kim are among 22 athletes the North will send.

None of the competitors was registered by North Korean authorities before an official deadline but the International Olympic Committee has said it will clear the team to perform in five disciplines: figure skating, short-track speed skating, cross-country skiing, Alpine skiing and ice hockey.

North Korea has taken part in seven of the last 12 Winter Olympics, most recently in Vancouver 2010.

But it boycotted the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, so its presence in Pyeongchang is seen as a significant diplomatic advance.