North Korea’s first bona fide chance to qualify athletes for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics is this week.
Pairs figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik compete at Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany, the final Olympic qualifying event for the sport.
Ryom and Kim must finish in the top five among pairs from nations not already qualified for the Olympics. Based on scores from the last year, they are favored to do so.
Their choreographer, Canadian Julie Marcotte, agrees.
“That’s all that matters to them right now is to qualify for the Olympics,” she said. “That’s all they want.”
Last season, the North Koreans asked Marcotte’s brother, Bruno, who coaches pairs, if they could train under him in Montreal in the summer. And if Julie could choreograph one of their programs.
There was no hesitation in accepting them. The North Koreans had previously trained in Toronto.
Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, were expected in Quebec in June but due to a travel delay arrived in July. They shared the ice with the likes of two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford.
“They were already very good, but they improved at the speed of light,” Marcotte said. “They were very receptive, very hard-working, and not the attitude people would expect, actually. It was mind-blowing. The story is actually that they were extremely joyful, extremely generous with their thankfulness, with their appreciation.”
The North Koreans speak no English, so most of the communication with Marcotte was non-verbal. They came with two North Korean coaches, one of whom spoke some English.
“[Ryom and Kim] are the sweetest people you’ve ever met,” said Marcotte, whose time spent with all of her skaters is wholly at practices. “It was so uplifting to have the chance to get to know them and work with them. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a great surprise.”
Ryom and Kim competed at the Quebec Summer Championships in August and scored 12 points higher than their personal best.
“They were out-of-this-world fabulous,” Marcotte said. “They’ve really come a long way. … I know they were crying, they were so excited. I think with their skating this summer it gave them hope they could qualify for the Olympics.”
This week’s event also includes pairs from Canada, Germany, Russia and the U.S., but they already clinched Olympic spots last season.
The North Koreans’ competition for Olympic spots on Thursday and Friday comes from the Czech Republic, Austria, Israel, Japan and Australia.
Ryom and Kim placed 15th at last season’s world championships, where they spoke briefly to The Associated Press through a translator.
They’re seeded second in the field of pairs eyeing Olympic qualification, granted these point totals won’t help them this week:
- Duskova/Bidar (CZE) — 189.09
- Ryom/Kim (PRK) — 169.65
- Ziegler/Kiefer (AUT) — 165.63
- Conners/Krasnopolski (ISR) — 165.38
- Suto/Boudreau-Audet (JPN) — 164.96
- Alexandrovskaya/Windsor (AUS) — 164.10
They’re performing to The Beatles in the short program for a second straight season. Their free skate is new, performed to Montreal singer Ginette Reno.
Despite winning at least four medals at every Summer Games since boycotting Seoul 1988, North Korea didn’t have any athletes at the Sochi Olympics and just two at Vancouver 2010.
North and South Korea have shown solidarity at recent Games.
The nations marched together under one flag at the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Sydney and Athens. In Rio, North and South Korean gymnasts posed for a selfie together. And North Korea did compete in the two Asian Games hosted by South Korea in the last 30 years, in 2002 and 2014.
Four years ago, a different North Korean pair missed qualifying a Sochi Olympic quota spot by .99 of a point at Nebelhorn Trophy.
If Ryom and Kim do not finish in the top five, North Korea could still qualify Alpine or cross-country skiers closer to the Winter Games.
There have also been reports that North Korean athletes could be granted special invitations without having to qualify.
Ryom and Kim have finished their Montreal training and will spend the lead-up to PyeongChang back in North Korea. Marcotte doesn’t expect to see them again before the Olympics. She has no plans to be in PyeongChang, either.
“They deserve to do well this week,” she said. “I wish it for them just for the people that they are.”
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*Addition: France announced it is giving up one of its two Olympic pairs sports, meaning five spots are available at Nebelhorn instead of four.