THEY ARE UNIFORMLY tall and beautiful, like cheerleaders at an American high school. They are also untouchable. Meet North Korea's charm brigade at the 14th Asian Games in Pusan - a 280-strong squad of 20-something cheerleaders who have caught the headlines, the limelight and the imagination of the South Korean public. The group of women from the Hermit Kingdom follow their athletes around like puppets on a string. The cheering is choreographed and well-orchestrated. But despite the lack of spontaneity, they are adored by their hosts - especially the men. 'We haven't seen people from the North for more than 50 years and there is a lot of interest in them,' says Park Myong-hui, a 64-year-old grocer who is watching this particular group of supporters more than the action at the women's soccer match between North Korea and Taiwan at the Masan Stadium on Monday night. Park says they remind him of what his country was like in the 1950s and 60s. 'They are somewhat old-fashioned. Their hairstyles are old. They are the same people as us and we were originally like them. But to me they are very beautiful. I love them.' Kim Dong-youn, 27, a journalist at the Korea Economic Daily, believes the charm offensive is all part of the reformation sweeping through North Korea. 'They want to show that their country is changing,' he says. 'This is the first time they have sent athletes and supporters to South Korea. It's great.' But like many other reporters covering these Games, he has been denied access to the North Korean cheerleaders who are ensconced in a security cordon wherever they go. More than 300 South Korean soldiers from an elite unit normally stationed at the demilitarised zone in Panmunjom have been chaperoning the beauties. 'We have received more than 60 requests for interviews from the media, but we cannot oblige as the North Korean delegation has said they will not grant any requests,' says a spokesman for the Games' organising committee. It is not clear if the tight security is to keep reporters and besotted male admirers out or to keep the cheerleaders in. There have been reports that the police were investigating intelligence of planned terrorist attacks by a group of disgruntled former South Korean espionage agents against North Koreans attending the Games. 'We are on constant alert, 24 hours a day,' says Choi Hyung-yu, leader of the organising committee's security taskforce for North Korean supporters and athletes. Many South Korean military veterans and victims of North Korean atrocities during the 1950-53 Korean War are strongly opposed to reconciliation with Pyongyang. At a song and dance show at the athletes' village on Sunday night, the North Korean dancers use wooden castanets and traditional fans to enthrall a rapt audience - from a distance. One section of the group, the all-female brass band, then play tunes including Arirang, which served as the two Koreas' national anthem during the joint entrance of the two athletic contingents at the opening ceremony on September 29. The national anthem of North Korea was heard for the first time in public in South Korea on October 1 at the Bukyong National University Gymnasium when 23-year-old Ri Song-hui won gold in weightlifting and, in the process, set a new world record. Her eyes brimming with tears, she accepted the gold medal while about 120 cheerleaders from her country sang the anthem as their national flag was raised. The 90-second anthem entitled Ae-guk-ga (meaning patriotic song) was composed in 1947 at the instruction of founding father and late president Kim Il-sung. Under South Korean national security laws, playing the national anthem or hoisting the North Korean flag is a grave criminal offence punishable by seven years in prison. But these restrictions have been relaxed at these Asian Games. Ever since the North Korean ship, the Mangyongbong No 92, arrived on September 28 with these exotic supporters on board, South Korean officials have been nothing but accommodating. When the ferry, on which the cheerleaders are quartered every night, docked at the Dadaepo port, 49 South Korean fishing boats sailed out to welcome the vessel flying Korean Peninsula flags, the third, neutral flag used in inter-Korean events. The cheerleaders' first appearance was at the North Korean versus Hong Kong men's soccer match - and they had a lot to cheer about: North Korea won 2-1. The limelight has mostly fallen on Ri Yu-kyong, the 21-year-old at the helm of the cheerleading squad. She has become the darling of local TV stations, who zoom in on her constantly. That she is being kept incommunicado has not prevented three Internet fan clubs devoted exclusively to her being set up in the past 10 days. 'Many newspapers and TV stations have reports on them daily,' enthuses journalist Kim. 'The hot topic of the Asian Games is these supporters. They have stolen the show.' Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall was a symbol of reunification of East and West Germany, the cheerleaders are turning into a symbol of Korean reunification which has been gathering steam in recent months. The first road link between the two Koreas - who are technically at war 50 years after an armistice - is expected to open soon. Last month, the Koreas launched a project to build a rail and road link across their heavily mined border. This first step towards peace has been strengthened dramatically in the past 10 days at the Asian Games by the cheerleaders' charm offensive, which will no doubt continue until the final moment of the closing ceremony on Monday. 'The cheerleaders were originally thought to be a support team for the athletes who felt they would receive a hostile reception from the South Korean public,' says Con Conway, vice-president of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee. 'But there has been absolutely superb support for the North Korean athletes and for the supporters too, all because of the spirit of reunification. Sport is a good way for reconciliation. The sight of victors and vanquished embracing after a contest upholds the spirit of unification. And it has been great to see the South Koreans embrace not only the athletes from North Korea, but also the supporters. We are witnessing history in the making.'