North Korea is one free skate away from qualifying athletes for the PyeongChang Olympics.
Pairs skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik placed third in qualifying standings in the short program of the final Olympic selection event in Germany on Thursday.
Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, will clinch North Korea’s first berth in any sport for PyeongChang if they finish in the top five following Friday’s free skate.
Performing to Beatles music, they landed side-by-side triple toe loops (ruled under-rotated) and a throw triple Salchow on Thursday.
Nations that previously qualified Olympic pairs spots (Russia, Germany, Canada, USA) cannot qualify any more pairs for PyeongChang this week, so they are excluded from qualifying standings.
The North Koreans’ score was 60.19 points, which is 4.33 shy of their best from last season. Still, they go into Friday with a 5.83-point lead over the sixth-place team as 11 nations overall bid for the five Olympic spots.
Ryom and Kim placed 15th at last season’s world championships, where they spoke briefly to The Associated Press through a translator.
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.
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