MONTREAL — The North Korean figure skaters who have been cleared to compete at the Winter Games in South Korea next month have a Canadian connection.
Pairs team Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the Games, worked under coach Bruno Marcotte in Montreal last summer on a routine devised with his sister, choreographer Julie Marcotte, and performed to Ginette Reno's song "Je ne suis qu'une chanson."
"They're very good," Bruno Marcotte said this week. "There's been a lot of talk about the political consequences but what has been overlooked is that they qualified. They earned the right to be there."
An agreement reached Tuesday in border talks between North and South Korea would see the north send a delegation to the Olympics, which open Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea. They were the first talks between the two Koreas in more than two years and appear to herald a thaw in relations between the two sides, despite the north's widely condemned nuclear missiles tests.
North Korea had missed the deadline to compete, but the International Olympic Committee extended it on Monday in anticipation of an agreement.
IOC president Thomas Bach "warmly welcomed" the agreement and called it "a first step forward in the Olympic spirit." The IOC will study details of the north's participation before giving its final approval.
Under the agreement, North Korea is to send athletes, a cheerleading squad, a cultural performance troupe and a Tae Kwan Do demonstration team as well as an Olympic committee delegation, observers and media to Pyeongchang.
Marcotte said Ryom and Kim approached him at the world championships in Helsinki in April about working together. They were fans of his star pairs team Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, the 2015 and 2016 world champions and silver medallists at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Marcotte, 43, who married 32-year-old Duhamel in 2015, said it was chaotic at first. Approvals from various sports and government bodies were needed to secure visas for the skaters, their own coach and a North Korean figure skating federation official, who was the only one who could speak English.
They had money, but no credit cards. A condo owned by a member of their skating club was found for them, but they couldn't get a car, so Marcotte and other club members drove them to the rink.
They trained together from June to September. It helped that a South Korean pairs team also works with Marcotte, and the two duos became friends.
It was only at the Nebelhorn Trophy event in Oberstdorf, Germany in September that Marcotte realized what it meant to work with the North Koreans. Ryom and Kim finished sixth to secure their Olympic qualification and, amid the controversy of North Korean president Kim Jung Un's nuclear tests, it got worldwide attention.
Suddenly he was getting calls from media around the globe.
"I had no clue at all," said Marcotte, who trains 12 pairs teams, including a few from other countries. "When anybody asks me to help them I always take it as an honour.
"I don't look at the shirt they're wearing or where they're from. I look at them as athletes. But when I got to Germany in late September and saw all the attention. . . My wife showed me the clips and I thought oh my god, that's something big.
"But my relationship with them has always been about how we can improve those athletes. It was never about the Olympics or politics."
Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, are not likely to challenge for a medal in Pyeongchang. They finished 15th at the world championships and all the teams ahead of them in Helsinki are expected to be at the Games.
"If they reach the top 10 or even the top 12 it would be an unbelievable achievement," said Marcotte. "The level of pairs skating is so high."
But he feels they have the potential to break into the world's top five or even top three in the future because they're still young and they work very hard.
Their dedication may also have helped Duhamel and Radford, who finished a disappointing seventh at the worlds.
"I do believe the North Koreans played a big part in getting Meagan and Eric motivated again," he said.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press