GANGNEUNG, South Korea – It seemed simple enough: A figure skating practice session in the days leading up to the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
But some 200 members of the media gathered at the Gangneung Ice Arena’s practice rink as the pairs teams for both North Korea and South Korea skated side by side Monday afternoon.
Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik are two of 22 North Koreans representing the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, having been granted a late entry by the International Olympic Committee after qualifying for the Olympic figure skating event in the fall of 2017.
Ryom and Kim practiced during the same session as South Korea’s Kim Kyu-Eun and Kam Alex Kang Chan, as well as Miu Suzaki and Ryuichi Kihara of Japan.
The North Korean team walked past dozens of journalists – including representatives from NBC – after their practice, only giving slight smiles when asked if they would stop for questions. Athletes are not required to speak to the press after practice sessions.
The South Koreans did stop, however.
“We’ve practiced with them a couple of times in the past,” Kam told NBCOlympics.com. “They’re a really good team, so it’s nice to skate alongside them. It gives us energy, as well, to push ourselves more. I think it’s really good.”
Neither team is expected to finish high up in what is seen to be a competitive pairs event, set for Feb. 14 and 15. Figure skating begins on Friday, Feb. 9, with the team event. South Korea is participating in the team event, while North Korea is not.
Few top-level figure skaters have yet to practice in PyeongChang, with the Korean practice session being the most closely watched one so far. Dozens of cameras shuttered in unison as the North Koreans made their way onto the ice a few moments after the South Koreans had stepped on.
Both teams stayed for the nearly 40-minute session, the North Koreans doing a run-through of their free skate while the South Koreans skated their short program.
The Korean teams know one another well: They have trained at the same rink in Montreal, becoming friendly and even cooking dinner for one another there. But their sharing of Olympic ice on Monday was significant for the Games overall, and North Korea’s participation in it.
South Korea is not expected to win any figure skating medals this month at their home Games, with 2010 Olympic champion and 2014 silver medalist Yuna Kim retiring from the sport after the Sochi Games.
The South Koreans Kim and Kam said the attention they have received so far in PyeongChang has been through the roof.
“It’s kind of new for us,” Kam said. “It feels good that people are watching out for us a bit more now. We just want to show them our best.”
He continued: “The crowd is going to be pretty crazy. We’re a little nervous, but we think we’re ready. We’re just going to do our thing.”
Kim added: “It’s very special for us.”
North Korean athletes are set to compete in hockey (the women’s team roster includes players from the North and South Koreas), Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, figure skating and short track speed skating.