North Korea’s famed cheerleading squad had found itself in the middle of a controversy over masks they put on during a women’s ice hockey match at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Some local reports have said the masks resembled Kim Il-sung, the country’s first leader and the grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
Conservative groups in South Korea said this was an attempt by North Korea to use the Games for propaganda.
South Korea’s Unification Ministry has sought to play down the incident, saying the photo was just a “good-looking” man.
The cheerleaders, part of North Korea’s official delegation to the Games, were performing at the joint Korean women’s ice hockey team’s match against Switzerland on Saturday.
The game – which saw the Koreans beaten 8-0 by Switzerland – was attended by several high-profile guests.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong and its ceremonial head of state Kim Yong-nam were seen sitting together in the stalls.
South Korean media outlet, Nocutnews said that the women – the so-called “army of beauties” – were cheering for Kim Il-sung and that the masks were his face.
‘No such meaning’
Concerns that the North might hijack the Games to promote its agenda and improve its international image have been a recurring theme in South Korea in the run-up to the Games.
So South Korea’s Unification Ministry was quick to deny the latest reports.
“After checking with a North Korean official at the scene, it has been confirmed that there was no such meaning whatsoever, as assumed in the report,” it said in a statement on Saturday night.
Officials said the image was of a generic “good-looking man”, which the cheerleaders wore while singing the man’s part of a North Korean love song.
Others said it was highly unlikely that North Koreans would use an image of Kim Il-sung – a deeply revered figure for North Koreans – in such a light-hearted manner.
“Considering the North Korean system and culture, it is impossible to use Kim Il-sung’s face – which is held in the highest dignity – for cheering for their team,” said Back Hye-ryun, a spokesperson for the ruling Democratic Party.
Despite the denials, conservative groups in South Korea have sharply criticised the masks.
Ha Tae-kyung of the opposition Bareun Party, said: “Will they [the ministry] say it’s not Kim even after seeing the picture of the younger Kim? Even the hair is identical.”
“Do you have to lie when it is clear that it is a Kim Il-sung mask? Do you want to make Pyeongchang Olympics a ‘lie Olympics’?” he asked.
Many people in South Korea have filed online petitions in protest.
“I would like to know what President Moon thinks about the cheer gear featuring the image of Kim Il-sung,” an internet user wrote on a petition on South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s website.
The controversy has also dominated social media, with the keyword “Kim Il-sung mask” trending on Sunday on South Korea’s largest internet portal, Naver.
One Naver user “wogn**” posted: “A mask of handsome guy? LOL. The South Korean government treats its citizens as if they are as stupid as pigs and dogs. How come it can make lies like that without any shame? Is Ministry of Unification a spokesperson for the North Korean government? How does this ministry know if this is Kim Il-sung or not? Pyongyang should explain. What a joke.”
Commenting on the Unification Ministry’s statement, influential Facebook user Carl F Lee wrote: “The statement is so ridiculous that it makes me wonder the ministry did this on purpose as a joke.”