North Korea’s Athletic Ambassadors

These were the briefest of contacts. But at least a connection was made. (That is no small improvement. At the 1999 Women’s World Cup of soccer, held in the United States, the North Koreans once gave a news conference without some key participants: athletes and coaches.)

Later on Wednesday, Ms. Kim and Mr. Ri gave a smile of thanks when I motioned for them to enter a door to the skating arena as I was walking out the same door with my photographer, Jun Michael Park.

“Contrary to our popular belief, they seemed to be more in touch with the outer world,” Jun said. As a native of South Korea who lives in Seoul, he was surprised to find his preconceptions challenged.

Apart from news media attention, the North Koreans are not so different from any other skaters here at the Nebelhorn Trophy competition. Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim are not being kept apart or ceaselessly trailed by minders, as has sometimes been the case for athletes from authoritarian nations. Ms. Ryom and Mr. Kim are staying in the same hotel as their competitors, and eating in the same restaurant. Like some others, they perform to Beatles music. After practice on Wednesday morning, they left the arena unchaperoned, presumably to catch a shuttle bus back to the hotel or to stroll the streets of this cozy Alpine village.

The pair smiled and hugged Bruno Marcotte, a prominent French Canadian coach who worked with them over the summer in Montreal.

“When I look at the Olympic flag, that’s what it is,” Mr. Marcotte said on Wednesday. “I see the rings crossing each other and five different colors. For me, that’s sports. It’s bringing every nation together, every race, every religion.”

My favorite interaction with North Korean athletes occurred during the 2003 Women’s World Cup, also held in the United States. The North Koreans stayed at a hotel outside Philadelphia and were accompanied by a garrulous, disarming owner of a rib joint in Hackensack, N.J. The restaurateur, Robert Egan, was also president of a trade organization seeking to improve relations between the United States and North Korea.

He cooked for the team at a sporting club one night and yelled from the kitchen, “Have we solved the nuclear crisis yet?” Every official present burst into laughter.

Throughout my experiences with North Koreans, I’ve found one thing holds steady: Although the North Korean government has succeeded in making its citizens seem abstract to the outside world, casual meetings with athletes and officials can reveal more similarities than differences.

In the words of Alexander Johnson, an American skater who watched the North Koreans train on Wednesday night: “They’re just people.”

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