North Korean lifters prove big hit in South

By Daniel Hicks ,AFP

INCHEON, South Korea — The exuberant antics of North Korea’s record-breaking weightlifters are causing a stir at the Asian Games as they are cheered on by pro-unification supporters with the police turning up en masse. With rock music blaring and the crowd on its feet and dancing, North Korea’s often stern athletes are the unlikely stars as they whip up a concert atmosphere, coincidentally on the site of the huge three-day annual Pentaport rock festival in Incheon, South Korea.

In front of the media, it’s a different story as the weightlifters carefully stick to the party line and confine themselves to thanking the communist state’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un. With a large North Korean delegation making a rare trip south for the Games, political sensitivities are raw between two ideologically opposed countries which remain technically at war. The weightlifting, a North Korean forte, has attracted a vocal group of red-clad cheerleaders yelling support for their “brothers” — as well as police wary of skirmishes with rival activists. It has made for a heady mix at Incheon’s Moonlight Festival Garden arena, and an atmosphere the visiting North Korean lifters have been happy to exploit. First on Saturday it was Om Yun Chol, 5ft 0in (1.50m) and weighing just under 56kg, who got the party started by breaking his own world record, leaping high to punch the air in celebration and milking the applause. Then on Sunday another flamboyant pocket-rocket, London Olympic gold medalist Kim Un Guk, smashed world records three times in claiming gold in the men’s 62kg. In the crowd, the Ariran Tongil (Korea unification) Cheerleading Squad, who have pledged to support all North Korean athletes at the Games, led the raucous applause. “We are one. You are one of us,” they chanted in Korean, as each lifter from north of the heavily fortified border took to the stage.