At first, it’s hard not to smile.
The cheerleaders sit in the stands, grinning ear-to-ear. They’re wearing identical outfits. They clap, they chant, they sway. And they’re doing so with complete symmetry.
“How sweet,” you might find yourself thinking, instantly transfixed.
And you wouldn’t be alone in doing so. That is basically how the world reacted at the sight of North Korea’s cheer squad – a team of 229 women, deployed to the Winter Olympics by the world’s most tyrannical regime.
Members of the team – dubbed the “army of beauties” – must meet strict criteria in order to be drafted.
Their physical attractiveness, family backgrounds, and loyalty to Kim Jong-un’s ruling Workers’ Party are all closely examined, according to The Straits Times. They must be taller than 1.65m – with exceptions only made for those with “very good looks”.
The routines we’ve seen orchestrated from the Olympic stands are mesmerising.
Here they are singing and dancing, without missing a beat.
— Thomas Schuurman (@ThomasSchuurman) February 10, 2018
Sometimes they sport identical masks.
Wait for it…. one of the stranger moments of the night… North Korean Cheerleaders holding masks as they sing “Whistle” one of North Korea’s most popular songs. #Olympics2018 (Via @Kubik_Kamera) pic.twitter.com/BXACRt27nZ
— Gadi Schwartz (@GadiNBC) February 10, 2018
Or wave flags symbolising Korean unity.
At the women’s ice hockey at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, North Koreans cheer: Go for it, go for it, our players, go for it! pic.twitter.com/ELTt4T7VXn
— Anna Fifield (@annafifield) February 10, 2018
Then, there is this eerie video. The squad chants while the ice rink itself is deserted, with Kanye West’s Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger playing over the top of them.
North Korean cheering squad’s first song “반갑습니다 Nice to meet you” pic.twitter.com/JSi29R8r6u
— Sohee Kim (@soheefication) February 10, 2018
And then you remember that these peppy women are just pieces of propaganda. Suddenly, these videos become a whole lot less charming.
The freakish level of choreography displayed by the cheerleaders would require brutal, meticulous planning. Their matchy-matchy enthusiasm is not encouraged, it is enforced. Their every move is being watched. One wrong foot, and their wellbeing could be in jeopardy.
North Koreans are constantly monitored when travelling, and they are acutely aware of the punishments that would befall their family back home if they were to defect.
A former North Korean police officer told CNN that team members would be under 24/7 surveillance, unable to even go to the bathroom alone.
Meanwhile across the border, their fellow countrymen and women are trapped in a state with one of the worst human rights records in the modern world, where people are enslaved, tortured, raped, murdered, starved and forced into prison camps.
So why is Kim Jong-un playing so nice?
At the Opening Ceremony in Pyeongchang, North and South Korea marched together in a striking display of unity under a joint flag. They also this year combined forces for their women's ice hockey team, picking 12 North Korean players and 23 South Koreans.
Jong-un is conducting a charm offensive. Analysts believe the apparent warming of North-South ties is a deliberate attempt to splinter the relationship between Washington and Seoul, to weaken US-led sanctions, and to buy time to finish developing nuclear weapons. The most recent missile test was on November 28, reportedly reaching its highest altitude yet at 4500km.
Listen: Everything you need to know about Donald Trump and North Korea. Post continues below.
Jong-un's spectacle is leaving the USA unnerved, with Vice President Mike Pence frantically trying to crumble his carefully curated propaganda.
“We’ll continue to seize every opportunity to ensure that North Korea does not use the powerful imagery and backdrop of the Olympics to paper over an appalling record of human rights and a pattern of developing weapons," Pence said, according to the Washington Post.
North Korea's sole purpose for attending these Olympic Games is to send a message of strength and unity. The cheer squad was planted to spark positive media coverage and boost Jong-un's global reputation.
And the scary part is, it seems to have worked.
You can follow Sophie Aubrey on Twitter.