By Hyunjoo Jin and Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – North Korean pair Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik ended their Olympic adventure in South Korea on Thursday, winning over the home crowd’s hearts even if they fell well short of a medal.
They were never likely to finish on the podium at the Pyeongchang Games, but still brought the crowd to life, a symbol of the sporting detente between North and South at this event.
The only North Korean athletes to formally qualify for the Games, Ryom and Kim embraced their coaches after performing their free skate in front of a jubilant crowd, recording a personal best score of 124.23 points.
Ryom, 19, shed a tear.
“I was very nervous but once I entered the rink, I saw our North Korean cheering squad and South Korean people putting their hearts together and cheering together,” the 25-year-old Kim said in television interview.
“They really cheered for me and it encouraged me a lot.”
A North Korean cheerleading squad chanted the skaters’ names and waved flags as they warmed up on the ice while the crowd of mostly South Koreans applauded and cheered every time they executed an element of their program.
The pair set three personal-best scores in Pyeongchang.
“This may be the last time I see North Koreans compete at an Olympics in South Korea,” said Lee Sae-rom, a South Korean spectator at the Gangneung Ice Arena.
“My daughter is so young that she does not even know that the two Koreas are divided, but I hope she feels that they should be reunited through sport.”
North and South Korea have remained in a technical state of war since their 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce rather than a peace treaty. The poor one-party state to the North and wealthy democratic South are divided by a heavy militarized border.
During the figure skating pair’s short program on Wednesday, South Korean students advocating warmer ties with the North brandished a banner that read: “Pyeongchang fairy Ryom Tae Ok, jump toward unification!”.
Ryom and Kim work with Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte, who has said they need to improve their power to be a threat on the international stage.
Their objective in the free program was to earn more than 125 points. They fell a few tenths of a point short, but are on track for their longer-term goal.
“Our goal has always been to break a record again and again, and advance step by step and not to turn back no matter what happens,” Kim said.
North Korea agreed to compete in Pyeongchang after the South and the International Olympic Committee encouraged the heavily sanctioned state to take part as a peace gesture.
North Korea’s participation is viewed as a sign of easing tensions over its nuclear and missile programs, which it pursues in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
The country did not have any athletes at the 2014 Sochi winter Games, but has sent 22 to Pyeongchang, including 12 ice hockey players in a combined North and South Korean women’s team.
American skater Nathan Chen said it was “super awesome” to have them at the Games.
“They just feel like any other athlete, any other competitor, and it’s really cool to see the Olympics do that,” he told a news conference.
“Ultimately, I’m really glad that they’re here and it’s great to see that figure skating is able to reach everyone.”
(Additional reporting by Elaine Lies, Editing by Mark Bendeich and Ed Osmond)