INJE, South Korea (AP) — A 229-member strong, all-female cheering section arrived from North Korea on Wednesday for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The women, wearing red coats with black fur collars and matching fur hats, received a celebrity welcome as they streamed off their buses and disappeared into their hotel at a South Korean automobile racing track resort.
The squad, which features women chosen for their youth, good looks and enthusiasm, has been allowed to root for the North's much smaller contingent of athletes — only about 22 are competing — as part of a last-minute arrangement between Pyongyang and Seoul. It's the first time a cheering squad from the North has come in 13 years.
Both sides are hoping to use participation by the North in the games to ease tensions that have been exceptionally high over the past year amid North Korea's stepped-up missile launches and nuclear weapons' development.
Arriving with the cheering squad was North Korea's Sports Minister Kim Il Guk, Olympic committee officials and a demonstration taekwondo team that will perform before the opening ceremony on Friday and again later in Seoul. On Tuesday, a cruise ship carrying 140 members of an orchestra along with singers and dancers docked at the post of Mukho, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Pyeongchang.
The North's nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, is expected to arrive later to attend opening ceremony. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister will also visit during the Olympics, the South Korean Unification Ministry said.
The arrival of the cheering squad has been highly anticipated in the South and also in Japan, where the squads have many fans, particularly among young men.
They are popular for their highly polished — and unabashedly campy — style of cheering, replete with drums, pompoms and other props depending on the event. They often wear matching uniforms and display the well-practiced unified precision that is a hallmark of North Korean mass events.
Similar cheering sections have been sent by the North to major international sports events in the South in 2002, 2003 and 2005. Kim Jong Un's wife was a member of the squad that came in 2005.
The deteriorating relationship between the Koreas had spelled the end to most such exchanges in more recent years, though the North sent athletes and a senior political delegation to the South in 2014 for the Asian Games.
Apart from their official activities, it's unlikely the women will have much interaction with South Koreans or freedom to explore their surroundings.
But for the Pyeongchang Games, the North and South with march together behind a blue-and-white "unification" flag and field a joint women's ice hockey team, which should give the squad something to cheer about.
Not everyone has welcomed the North's "charm ambassadors."
A small but loud and angry protest was held by right-wing demonstrators at the port where the musical troupe arrived Tuesday. Surrounded by a heavy police presence, they tore and burned drawings of Kim Jong Un and the North Korean flag.
The protest was kept out of sight for the North Koreans on the cruise ship, which docked about 500 meters (yards) away. But the North's state-run media quickly denounced the protest in its typically colorful rhetoric as a "spasm of psychopaths."