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North Korea's Olympic Skaters


North Korea's Olympic committee representative said yesterday that it's likely that two of their figure skaters will go to the Olympics in South Korea beginning February 9, which is a big deal. Joining us to talk about it is Jere Longman, sports reporter for The New York Times. He's at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship in San Jose, Calif., which is the noise I think we can hear behind you. Welcome to the program.

JERE LONGMAN: Thanks for having me, Lulu - appreciate it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. So tell us a little bit about these North Korean skaters. What kind of skaters are there? What are their names?

LONGMAN: So it's a pairs team that finished 15th at the 2017 World Championships. So they're, you know, elite, quality skaters. The woman in the pair is Ryom Tae Ok, who's - will turn 19 shortly before the Olympics. And her partner is Kim Ju Sik, who is 25. And they're both listed as students. They have a kind of dynamism that's reflective of Chinese skaters and a kind of precision that's often seen in the Russian skaters. And they skate to the Beatles in their short program - instrumental version of "Day In The Life" as performed by Jeff Beck.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Good choice, good choice - I like it. So let me ask you this. Why is it significant that they might be competing in the Olympics in South Korea?

LONGMAN: So North Korea is not a Winter Olympic power. It has only won two medals in the Winter Olympics - both in speedskating - and none since 1992. But given that the Olympics are taking place in...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Their great rival.

LONGMAN: ...In the divided North Korean peninsula at a time of great geopolitical tension, the International Olympic Committee and the president of South Korea are really desperately hoping they - and have been saying for months that they want North Korea to participate in hopes that, you know, it could bring some sort of immediate reduction of tensions on the peninsula and perhaps lead to some longer-term thaw in the relations between the two countries.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So sports bringing these two countries together is the Olympic hope and, I suppose, just the Olympic dream writ large for all sports.

LONGMAN: Yes - so they're being labeled and have been for months as the Peace Games. The Olympics have been corrupted in many ways by, you know, scandal and money and other things. But at its ideal is the notion that athletes from countries who don't get along with each other can, for a short period of time, come together through friendship and competition - show the, you know, sort of the better angels of mankind.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If the North Korean pair actually compete in South Korea, how closely scrutinized will their performance be, do you think, and what will their reception be in South Korea?

LONGMAN: I think in the larger Olympic world and the larger political world, their presence would mean far more than how they actually skate. And, you know, it's much more important, at least in the eyes of the Olympics, that they be there and less important by exactly what place they finish.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jere Longman, sports reporter for The New York Times - thank you very much.

LONGMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.