North Korea Skaters Seek Olympic Bid, and Diplomats Cheer

The easiest route is for athletes from North Korea to qualify.

From mid-June through mid-August, the North Korean pair of Ms. Ryom, 18, and Mr. Kim, 25, trained in Montreal, refining their attempt to claim one of five Olympic spots available here at this week’s Nebelhorn Trophy competition.

The skaters, their coach and a North Korean skating official spoke frequently about the Olympics, said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent French Canadian coach who worked with the pair.

“All the time they would ask me: ‘Do you think we have a chance to qualify? Are we good enough? What do we need to qualify?’ ” Mr. Marcotte said of the pair, who aspire to become one of the world’s top 10 teams.

“They didn’t want to talk about politics,” said Mr. Marcotte, who is also here assisting the North Koreans. “It was all about sport and being the first ones in the Olympics and breaking barriers and doing their best.”

It is a widely held feeling among South Korean politicians and Olympic officials, as well as some international athletes, that the Games would be safer with North Korea’s participation, lessening security concerns and perhaps spurring slow ticket sales.

In that view, Kim Jong-un, the unpredictable North Korean leader, would be less likely to act provocatively if athletes from his country were competing in the Olympics, alongside those of China, North Korea’s benefactor.


Flags, including those of North Korea and South Korea, hang over a rink in Oberstdorf.

Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

“It’s kind of an insurance policy to have them there,” said Ted Ligety, a two-time gold medalist in Alpine skiing from the United States.

Of course, there is no way to predict what the political situation will be on the Korean Peninsula in four months, when the Olympics take place about 40 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South.

And there is no guarantee that North Korea will participate. It is not a winter sports power and did not compete at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. It also boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the South Korean capital.

A general wariness seems to be encroaching on these Games. France has said its Olympic team will not travel to South Korea if its safety cannot be guaranteed.

Still, Thomas Bach, the president of the I.O.C., has said there is “so far not even a hint” that security concerns related to North Korea threaten the Games. In any case, officials say it is too late to move the Olympics.

“There is no Plan B,” said Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the I.O.C. from the United States.


The North Korean pair consult with Bruno Marcotte, left, a prominent French Canadian coach, and their full-time coach, Kim Hyon-son.

Jun Michael Park for The New York Times

Mr. Chang, the I.O.C. delegate from North Korea, has said its athletes will also attempt to qualify for the Games in short-track speedskating and Nordic skiing, which includes cross-country events. According to Reuters, North Korea has formally complained that international sanctions have interfered with its ability to purchase skiing equipment needed for training.

In April, North Korea sent its women’s hockey team to play in South Korea. In June, it sent a taekwondo team. That month, South Korea’s sports minister mentioned the possibility of fielding a combined hockey team in the Olympics and permitting North Korea to host an Alpine skiing event.

Those prospects seem unlikely now, South Korean Olympic and government officials said last week in New York.

“North Korea is my biggest worry,” Choi Moon-soon, the governor of Gangwon Province in South Korea, where the 2018 Olympics will take place, said in a recent interview. “It’s not because of North Korea making an impact on the Olympics, it’s that if North Korea can participate, then it will make a great contribution for our goal of hosting a Peace Olympics, and it will be a great selling point.”

If North Korea does compete, perhaps its most visible — and only — athletes will be Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim. They finished 15th at the 2017 world figure skating championships in March with a style influenced by classic Russian efficiency and precise placement of the arms and head.

Dressed in silver and black costumes at training on Wednesday, the pair skated to an instrumental version of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” as performed by Jeff Beck, which will provide a musical backdrop for Thursday’s opening performance.


Moon Jae-in, the president of South Korea, struck a cautiously hopeful tone at a ceremony to unveil the design of the 2018 Olympic medals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week.

Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

The issue can be culturally sensitive. At the world championships, the North Koreans ended a brief interview with The Associated Press when asked how they had chosen the Beatles’ music.

On Wednesday, Ms. Ryom and her partner, Mr. Kim, appeared smiling though slightly nervous during practice. (“Trying to be too much,” Mr. Marcotte said.) Still, they received polite applause from the four dozen or so people who watched them train at the Eissportzentrum in this Alpine village with bell cows in the pastures and snow dusting the highest peaks.

It is not uncommon for pairs skaters to have an artistically stressed relationship, and as Mr. Marcotte put it, a coach can sometimes be more of a marriage counselor. But the North Koreans remained unfailingly upbeat during their summer training, he said. And they even made kimchi, a staple dish, for a South Korean pair that he also trained.

“I think there is a will for friendship, a will for peace,” Mr. Marcotte said of the skaters. “They were so driven and so positive. I didn’t expect that. They were sponges. They wanted to learn so badly.”

Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim will be under enormous scrutiny and pressure this week to qualify for the Olympics. But they also appear confident, Mr. Marcotte said.

Ri Chol-un, an official with the North Korean figure skating association, said the pair might even speak to reporters on Friday after the pairs competition ends.

“As long as it’s about figure skating,” he said.

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