Tight security awaits North Korea’s 230 cheerleaders who will make this exclusive South Korean mountain resort their home-from-home from Wednesday during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Flags of welcome are already flying here for the North Korean cheerleaders — mostly elite, attractive females in their 20s — who will arrive in a convoy of buses after crossing the world’s most heavily fortified border earlier in the day.
The cheer squads are leading a North Korean charm offensive in the South following a diplomatic thaw between the two bitter rivals triggered by the nuclear-armed North’s agreement to take part in the Games. North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-Nam will attend the opening ceremony on Friday.
Surrounded by mountains in the sparsely populated town of Inje, the Inje Speedium hotel, near to a 3.9 kilometre auto racing track, is seen as an ideal spot for enforcing tight security while at the same time maintaining close surveillance on the large group of Northerners.
Aging low-rise apartments and army bases dot the rural town where a dozen South Korean flags wave in the breeze against the chilly winter weather in the remote spot around 120 kilometers from the Olympic stadium in Pyeongchang.
Only a short drive out of the town, the hotel and luxury resort opened only five years ago, with a bright orange mock-up racing car showcased in the modern lobby.
Banners saying “We welcome the North’s cheerleaders” flutter on the roads near the resort town.
But the hotel stands empty — all guests had checked out as of Monday and the hotel is accepting no other reservations for its 252 rooms until the end of the Olympics, a staff member at the front desk told AFP.
In one of the rooms where the North Koreans will be staying, a flat-screen television offered a list of cable channels including US news network CNN.
Foreign news outlets are strictly banned in the North and the hotel said it is still making adjustments ahead of the arrival of its special guests.
“There have been some requests (from the North) for security but everything is being handled by the government,” Kim Tae-Eun told AFP.
Everything outside the rooms, Kim said, including its arcade station in the basement blaring “Surfin’ USA” and where games can be used for roughly $ 1 per go, will be left unchanged for the guests to enjoy.
– Musical tunnel –
The near two-hour commute from the hotel to the Olympic venues will offer the North Koreans a glimpse of the landscape of one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries.
A tunnel that stretches 11 kilometres through the mountains features a high-tech sound and light show to entertain travelers.
The tunnel, which connects Inje with neighbouring Yangyang country, is a hallmark of southern technology, serenading drivers and providing a multi-color light show.
On the ceiling of the tunnel are LED projections of daisies, the sky, or the sandy beach — depending on the time of the day — with “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” playing in the background.
Residents of Inje say they are worried the heavy police presence will disrupt their business but are welcoming the northern visitors.
“It’s great that Inje is contributing to the peacemaking between the North and South,” said Hwang In-Soo, who owns a cafe about five minutes away from the resort.
The roads will be closed down for security purposes, which will hamper business, added his wife Kim Ge-Suk.
But she smiled at the unlikely possibility of serving lattes and cappucinos to the visitors and said: “It would be nice if North Korean ladies came to our cafe,” Kim said.