This year’s World University Games, held in the South Korean city of Taegu from Aug. 21 to 30, drew a record 7,000 young athletes from 174 countries. The Games also drew daily Japanese media coverage, with some news shows running lengthy special reports on all the excitement in Taegu.
However, none of this excitement had anything to do with sports.
In fact, the competitions didn’t receive any air time. The only thing that was covered was the 300 young North Korean women who acted as cheerleaders for their country’s athletes. These women, who in Japan are called the bijo gundan (army of beautiful women), held both the South Korean and Japanese media captive with their looks, even as they perplexed them with their behavior.
And the behavior certainly was perplexing, though these days news footage of North Korean mass rallies has accustomed Japanese viewers to the bijo gundan’s cheerleading style. The performances are rigorously synchronized and histrionic without containing anything that comes across as a genuinely felt emotion.
For the most part, Japanese reporters were content to stand back and observe the interaction between the South Koreans and these young women. The bijo gundan has its own followers in the South who set themselves up within shouting distance of their idols and indulge in call-and-response cheering. Ever since the gundan made its south-of-the-border debut at the Asian Games last summer in Pusan, Internet sites have sprung up with discussions and polls on which member is the most beautiful. When South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun apologized after the North threatened to pull out of the Games because some South Korean protesters ripped up a North Korean flag, reporters speculated that he did it to ensure that the gundan showed up.
Every morning of the Games men appeared at the training center 30 minutes from downtown Taegu where the women stayed and stood under their windows shouting things like, “You are so beautiful!”
So the behavior was perplexing all around and while the Japanese press would like you to think they were above it all, the very fact that they couldn’t get enough of the weirdness indicated they weren’t. No aspect of the gundan was too trivial. News shows ran features on the equipment they brought — clappers, pink megaphones, multicolored pom-poms, arch-shaped items that no one could think of a name for — and all the Japanese reporters attempted direct communication with the lovelies, who would either coyly turn away or give one-word answers.
This attempt to humanize the cheerleaders by presenting them as individuals failed because the whole point of the group is faceless solidarity. To be an individual is to betray the cause, and there was something pathetic about the young South Korean men who developed crushes on individual members. The response of the women to these advances was always the same: “Let’s meet again when our countries are reunited.”
It was no secret that the gundan’s role is political, but only a few commentators who discussed the “bijo gundan syndrome” realized that the politics were for the benefit of the folks back home in the North. Early in the Games, there was a fight between a group of South Korean protesters and some North Korean “journalists” who were clearly security agents. Not to be outdone by their male compatriots, the next day the gundan staged a hissy fit when they noticed that a banner featuring their beloved leader was getting wet and wrinkled in the rain. With half the contingent sobbing and the other half making the angriest faces they could manage without ruining their makeup, they made their point before the cameras.
It was not a flattering display, but it was consistent with the facade that the group is supposed to present. As examples of the grossest concept of feminine charm, the women are required to be both petulant (during the opening ceremony they sat on their hands and frowned while the Japanese and U.S. teams paraded by) and submissive (the frozen smiles). According to a cosmetics expert quoted in an article in Shukan Bunshun, the gundan combines “childishness” and “femininity” in a package that “men instinctively want to protect.”
Men also instinctively objectify them, since the gundan invites objectification by defining itself completely by female pulchritude. A difficult-to-prove theory that has been advanced by the South Korean media is that the gundan is arranged in the stands in order of attractiveness; meaning, the women in the front rows are prettier than the ones in the back.
The troupe that went to Taegu apparently wasn’t even the main gundan. They were an auxiliary, made up mostly of students. According to reports, the North Korean government screens applicants from elite universities (though a communist state, the Democratic People’s Republic has a distinct and detailed class system) in terms of looks, musical ability and firmness of ideology. But the final selection is supposedly made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il himself, who even chooses the color of their lipstick. It makes perfect sense. Kim’s governing style is informed more by theatrics than by political ideology. As dangerous as his terrorism and kidnapping activities have been, they betray a mind that sees the world as one big stage for a cheap spy novel. He was probably flattered that the last James Bond movie used North Korea as the nemesis.
In that regard, the bijo gundan can be seen as a strategic weapon, one that turns capitalist running dogs into lovesick lapdogs. Who needs nukes?