North Korea’s top figure skaters are big fans of Canadian world champions Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford.
So when Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik got the chance to meet the Canadian pair at the world championships in Helsinki in March, they were pretty excited.
They even approached Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte with a proposal: let us come to Canada to train.
And so they did.
After some visa issues were worked out, the North Korean pair arrived in Montreal in June, to be coached by Marcotte for a little over two months.
“I had to make all the arrangements for them, because I mean, they don’t have a credit card. So they cannot just book a hotel,” said Marcotte, who also coaches Radford and Duhamel. “They do not have [a] driver’s licence, so I could not just find a place anywhere in Montreal.”
He set them up in a former student’s nearby condo and on short notice, devised a training program.
“They skate with so much passion,” he said.
“Really they’re a crowd favourite, very fast. They’re so expressive that the audience just connects very well with them. They have a lot of charisma on the ice, that’s for sure.”
What he wanted to teach them was speed and power – getting more “hang time” on the twists, where the man tosses the woman into the air and catches her, and bigger throws.
The pair’s free skate was devised by Marcotte’s sister, Julie Marcotte, a world-famous figure skating choreographer. In a very Canadian twist, the routine is set to a song performed by popular Quebec chanteuse Ginette Reno: “Je ne suis qu’une chanson.” Reno has recently been a bit of a good luck charm for the Montreal Canadiens – singing the national anthem before playoff games.
WATCH: Ginette Reno performing “Je ne suis qu’une chanson”
That voice could soon be heard across the Pacific. The pair has qualified for the Olympics next February in PyeongChang, South Korea, but North Korea has yet to decide whether they will send athletes to the event. The country boycotted the last Olympics set in South Korea: the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul.
“There are weeks I think they’re going and there are weeks I think they’re not going,” said Marcotte.
Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, came to Canada with their own North Korean coach and a representative from the North Korean skating federation.
They relied on the federation man a lot, said Marcotte, because he spoke English. But, he doesn’t feel like they were being closely watched by either of their companions. “They were often all of them together, but they were not constantly watched or surveyed, no,” he said, characterizing it as more of a “family” feeling.
They sometimes went shopping in Montreal or went out together, he said. “They spoke to everybody. I mean, they got really integrated, they integrated themselves really well with all the other kids.”
It’s uncommon, but not unheard-of for North Koreans to visit Canada. According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 15 visas were issued between January and September 2017. Four of these would have been the figure skating team.
The group enjoyed Montreal, said Marcotte, and liked to see the Canada Day celebrations. “They were there during Canada Day and the guy, he was talking about Justin Trudeau.”
“He was like, ‘I like this man.’ He was talking about how he really likes Justin Trudeau, which was of course very funny.”
Over time, said Marcotte, he was able to learn more about their lives back in North Korea. He thinks that their training regimen is like the Chinese – where athletes are separated from their families and only able to see them on weekends.
He’s not sure that being an international-level athlete necessarily means a better life back home for them. He imagines that in North Korea, you have to have a good life already to be able to figure skate.
Mostly, said Marcotte, the North Koreans wanted to be seen as athletes – not as political figures. “Every time I spoke to them, they always made sure that they never wanted me to feel and confuse politics with sport. And they always wanted to make sure that I saw them as sportsmen and not as political representatives.”
That was fine by him: “Me, I don’t teach for politics.”
WATCH: North Korean defector Ellie Cha says she wants Canadians to know that North Korea is more than just a nuclear dictatorship, it’s a country of millions of people.
So, they spent a lot of time asking about how they could improve.
“They always asked me, ‘What can we do to be better? What can we do to be Top 10 in the world?’”
North Korea wants to specialize in pairs skating, he thinks, as there has never been a successful North Korean figure skating pair. “I think they want to be pioneers.”
Kim and Ryom were not that excited to qualify for the Olympics, he said, which surprised him. “As far as the Olympics goes, I don’t think it’s a big deal for them until they can be medal contenders.”
They don’t just want to participate, he thinks, they want to win.
Their big goal is to make it onto the podium at the 2020 world championships. They’re also hoping to be asked sometime soon to participate in an invitation-only Grand Prix event, he said.
“I think for them it’s for sure to make their country proud. And also to show the world that no matter where you’re from, you can be successful.”
Still, Marcotte hopes he will see them compete in PyeongChang. “I hope so for one reason only: if they don’t go, it means another pair team will go instead of them, from another country. And you want the best teams in the world to compete in one of the best competitions in the world.”
“I consider them one of the top rising teams in the world. And because of that I would really like them to be there.”
WATCH: Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik perform their free skate program at an Olympic qualifying event in Germany.
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