GANGNEUNG, South Korea -- North Korea's presence at the Pyeongchang Games thus far has been symbolic, a manifestation of goodwill from Kim Jong-un or a propaganda charm offensive designed to distract the world from the country's human rights abuses, depending on who you ask.
On Wednesday, it became about sport. In one of the most competitive pairs fields in memory, North Koreans Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, the only athletes from their country to qualify for these games on merit, skated the program of their lives. In front of a large delegation of their country's much-publicized cheer squad, they scored a career-high 69.40 points in their short program to qualify for the free skate on Thursday. To put that in perspective, they currently sit three places above U.S. champs Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim.
The half-empty arena had been quiet for the first hour and a half of the event, with mostly only the Russian fans adding occasional spirit. That changed immediately when Ryom, 19, and Kim, 25, took the ice for warm-ups. On one side of the stands, a group of 40 or 50 fans waved unification flags and chanted the skaters' names. On another, the North Korean cheer squad, clad in red tracksuits and white hats, were in full voice. Even the applause seemed to be in sync, and it filled the arena with energy. And as Kim and Ryom's music accelerated, they led the audience in clapping along.
Ryom and Kim skated with passion, focus and, most strikingly, joy -- and were rewarded accordingly. They were clearly delighted by their performance, pumping their fists upon seeing their score.
"We could really feel the power and the energy of the Korean people," Kim said before he and Ryom rushed past the assembled press waiting for them without stopping.
The cheer squad and the fans waving unification flags also left the stands after their skate.
With this performance, Kim and Ryom add to their status as North Korea's highest-achieving figure skaters in history. Last month, they became the first from their country to medal at an international event, taking bronze at the Four Continents Championship.
Their performance Wednesday had little to do with political posturing. It was about them and their abilities, and it showed in the way they skated. Their competitors were thrilled for them.
"We've competed against them a couple times, and the amount they've grown is amazing," Chris Knierim said. "They've improved so much in the last two seasons. We're very happy for them."
Canadian pair skater Meagan Duhamel, who trained with the North Koreans over the summer in Montreal, offered her take on Kim and Ryom.
"We were really excited to see them skate so well here today," Duhamel said. "I enjoy watching their short program, because I worked with them a little bit on the energy of their footwork and their death spiral. So when she starts rolling her head and giving more emotion, I'm like, 'Yeah! That's what I asked her to do!'"
The top four pairs are separated by only six points, so the long program on Thursday promises to be an intense, high-scoring affair. While pundits agree Ryom and Kim have no realistic shot at an Olympic medal, they will leave the ice knowing that they belong.