Mind the gap: North’s ‘army of beauties’ reveal cultural divide between two Koreas

1 / 2
A group of North Korean cheerleaders for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics greets South Koreans as they visit Gyeongpo Beach in Gangneung. (Yonhap via AP)
2 / 2
A group of North Korean cheerleaders for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics wave as they visit Gyeongpo Beach in Gangneung, South Korea. (Yonhap via AP)
Updated 19 February 2018
0

Mind the gap: North’s ‘army of beauties’ reveal cultural divide between two Koreas

GANGNEUNG, South Korea: North Korea’s red-clad “army of beauties” cheerleaders are a key weapon in Pyongyang’s arsenal for its Winter Olympics charm offensive — but to some Southerners they illustrate the cultural divide across the Demilitarized Zone.
The 200-strong group — all in their late teens or early 20s and said to be handpicked from elite universities after strict background checks — chant “Cheer up” at events, clap and wave in unison, and sing traditional songs.
The Koreas’ separation — which dates back nearly seven decades during which the two countries have followed radically different paths — makes citizens of the North an object of some fascination for South Koreans.
“They look just like us,” said Kim Mi-hyun, 59, as the young North Koreans walked by in a neat double line on an excursion to a beach in Gangneung, the east coast city where the Winter Games ice events are being held.
“Looking at them makes me yearn for reunification,” she added, filming the sight on her smartphone.
Others were struck by their chunky trainers and white woolly hats.
“They look like Koreans from a long time ago,” said 30-year-old Lee Jung-hoon.
Younger South Koreans tend to be more wary of the North having spent their adult lives in a culturally vibrant democracy regularly menaced and occasionally attacked by Pyongyang, which stands accused of widespread human rights abuses.
The cheerleaders are under tight surveillance from their Northern escorts, always moving in groups in the presence of a minder and rarely conversing with South Koreans.
They said nothing in response to Southerners’ calls of welcome at the beach, opting instead for a coy smile or friendly wave.
“They don’t speak,” said Yoo Hong-sik, 31, from Daejeon. “I think they received orders not to and that’s disappointing because I would like to interact with them.”
The Northern supporters’ every move is trailed by an army of South Korean journalists, with some camping outside their hotel for photos of the women going for a morning jog or ironing their clothes.
It is the fourth cross-border visit by a North Korean cheer group and the initial enthrallment has changed over time, as Pyongyang pursues the nuclear and missile ambitions which have seen it subjected to multiple rounds of UN Security Council sanctions.

Dubbed an “army of beauties” by the South’s media, there was so much interest in the squad sent for the 2003 Universiade in Daegu that the facility where they stayed was turned into a museum displaying personal items left behind — including unused tampons and empty toothpaste tubes.
On that trip, a tearful group of cheerleaders frantically ran off their bus to retrieve a banner of then-North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that was getting wet in the rain.
In 2005, former North Korean cheerleader Cho Myung-Ae — whose looks had gained her a huge following in the South — appeared in a television commercial for a Samsung mobile phone with South Korean pop star Lee Hyo-Ri.
Now, though, the cheerleaders are part of a charm offensive by Pyongyang aimed, analysts say, at easing the measures against it and trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and its protecting ally Washington.
At the unified women’s ice hockey team’s 8-0 drubbing by Sweden on Monday — which guaranteed its elimination at the group stage — the cheerleaders chanted and waved in red, blue and white tracksuits.
“I hope they come more often,” said Kang Seok-joong, 61, adding the visit would bring the two countries closer together.
But Noh Seung-Hyuk, a 29-year-old office worker in the stands, was disturbed by the Northerners’ lockstep choreography.
“Of course it is nice to see them but they give me the chills,” he said. “Honestly, they feel distant.”
Many older South Koreans on both sides of the political divide harbor a nostalgic longing for some form of reunification — conservatives through the North’s collapse and conquest by the South, liberals through a more amicable arrangement.
But younger people have far less interest in unification and fear its social and economic consequences.
A poll last year found almost 50 percent of over-60s believed the two Koreas can be reunified, while just 20.5 percent of those in their 20s agreed.
“We look the same but I feel bad because they don’t have any freedom,” said Kim Jung-ah, a 22-year-old student from Seoul at the match.
Her friend Lee Eun-mi added: “I think they are very different, they are so robotic.”
As popular girl group TWICE’s “Cheer up” blared from the loudspeakers across the arena, two young South Korean spectators danced jovially.
The North Koreans paused — and began bellowing out a 600-year-old Korean folk song, waving their unification flags in synchronized moves.
“They are like the military, I pity them,” said Lee Min-woo, a 20-year-old student from Seoul.
“I haven’t given any thought to reunification.”


Rare silk Qur’an helps preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

Updated 29 min 40 sec ago
0

Rare silk Qur’an helps preserve Afghanistan’s cultural heritage

  • Each of the Islamic holy book’s 610 pages was produced by hand in a painstaking process that took a team of 38 calligraphers and artists specializing in miniatures nearly two years to finish
  • Turquoise Mountain began work in 2006 in Kabul with the aim of preserving ancient Afghan craftsmanship, including ceramics, carpentry and calligraphy

KABUL: One of the only Qur’ans ever made from silk fabric has been completed in Afghanistan — a feat its creators hope will help preserve the country’s centuries-old tradition of calligraphy.
Each of the Islamic holy book’s 610 pages was produced by hand in a painstaking process that took a team of 38 calligraphers and artists specializing in miniatures nearly two years to finish.
Bound in goat leather and weighing 8.6 kilograms, the Qur’an was produced by Afghan artisans, many of them trained at British foundation Turquoise Mountain in Kabul.
“Our intention was to ensure that calligraphy does not die out in this country — writing is part of our culture,” Khwaja Qamaruddin Chishti, a 66-year-old master calligrapher, said in a cramped office inside Turquoise Mountain’s labyrinthine mud-brick and wood-paneled complex.
With the Qur’an considered a sacred text, calligraphy is highly venerated in Islam and Islamic art.
“When it comes to art we cannot put a price on it. God has entrusted us with this work (the Qur’an) ... and this means more to us than the financial aspect,” Chishti continued.
Using a bamboo or reed ink pen, Chishti and his fellow calligraphers spent up to two days carefully copying Qur’anic verses onto a single page — sometimes longer if they made a mistake and had to start again.
They used the Naskh script, a calligraphic style developed in early Islam to replace Kufic because it was easier to read and write.
The decoration around the script, known as illumination, was more time-consuming, each page taking more than a week to complete.
A team of artists used paint made from natural materials, including ground lapis, gold and bronze, to recreate the delicate patterns popular during the Timurid dynasty in the 15th and 16th centuries in the western city of Herat.
“All the colors we have used are from nature,” Mohammad Tamim Sahibzada, a master miniature artist who was responsible for creating the vibrant colors used in the Qur’an, said.
Sahibzada said working on silk fabric for the first time was challenging. The locally sourced material — all 305 meters (1,000 feet) of it — was treated in a solution made from the dried seeds of ispaghula, or psyllium, to stop the ink from spreading.
Turquoise Mountain began work in 2006 in Kabul with the aim of preserving ancient Afghan craftsmanship, including ceramics, carpentry and calligraphy.
It hopes the silk Qur’an will generate demand for more handmade Islamic religious texts that could create employment for its artisans and help finance the institute.
“We will show it to other Islamic countries to see if it is possible to create job opportunities for graduates to work on another Qur’an,” said Abdul Waheed Khalili, the organization’s Afghan director.
For now, it will be kept in a specially made hand-carved walnut wooden box to protect its delicate pages from the elements at Turquoise Mountain’s offices, which are in the restored Murad Khani, a historic commercial and residential area in Kabul’s oldest district.
There Turquoise Mountain has trained thousands of artisans with the support of Britain’s Prince Charles, the British Council, and USAID.
“The copying of the Qur’an onto silk is very rare,” country director Nathan Stroupe said.
He said the project has been “an amazing way to train our students at an incredibly high level in a very traditional type of work.”
“If a book collector in London... was interested in it, we would be thinking in the $100,000 to $200,000 (price) range,” he added.