North Korea to send delegation to South Korea Olympics

Beijing: It has been proposed that North Korean athletes jointly enter the Olympic stadium with South Korean athletes, behind a single Korean peninsula flag, in a revival of the peace gesture pioneered at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

The offer was made at the first high-level talks between North Korea and South Korea in two years at the border village of Panmunjom on Tuesday.

The meeting had focused on North Korea’s participation in the winter Olympics, but also resulted in the two countries agreeing to hold separate military talks on easing border tensions.

Tuesday’s meeting was a breakthrough after a two-year communications freeze, during which time North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had defied the international community by ratcheting up his nuclear weapons and missile program.

Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in were able to listen in to the meeting on Tuesday morning between the two nation’s unification and sports ministers. Negotiations continued in the afternoon between officials.

In 2000, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch had personally negotiated the deal for the two Koreas to wear the same uniform and enter the Olympic Stadium together, after writing to Kim Jong-il.

North Korea responded with the idea of a single flag, because it said the “ultimate goal” was unification.

But the mood in 2000, when a landmark summit had taken place in Pyongyang between the senior Kim and then South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, and paved the way for family reunions, is vastly different to the global mood today.

For months, the tweeted barbs of US President Donald Trump, and verbal missives of North Korean leader Kim, have suggested the world could be on the brink of a nuclear war.

The United Nations Security Council has imposed harsh economic sanctions on North Korea. Tough bans on its workers and companies operating in China due to take effect this month will severely cut foreign cash to the regime.

But Kim’s New Year’s Day proposal that North Korea participate in the Winter Olympics, which open in Pyeongchang on February 9, appears to have acted as a circuit breaker.

Ahead of the talks, the US and South Korea agreed to suspend military drills while the Olympics is held, and a hotline between north and south has reopened.

In the meeting on Tuesday, North Korea agreed to send athletes, cheerleaders, artists, spectators, officials and a demonstration taekwondo team.

North Korea reopened a military hotline with the south on Tuesday.

A joint statement released on Tuesday evening said North Korea and South Korea had agreed to activate exchanges in diverse areas, and to continue talking to improve relations.

South Korea said the two sides were “getting closer” on the joint march into the Olympic stadium, Yonhap reported.

Earlier, during a break in the meeting, South Korean Vice Minister of Unification Chun Hae-sung quoted Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon as saying: “It is necessary to relaunch dialogue as soon as possible for peaceful settlement like denuclearisation. Based on the mutual respect and cooperation, any action that escalates tension on the peninsular should be stopped.”

However North Korea’s chief delegate was reported to be “strongly dissatisfied” with any mention of denuclearisation.

The office of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had earlier briefed journalists in South Korea it was premature to judge the meeting “as the beginning of something”, because North Korea may have only wanted to talk about the Olympics.

The US policy on North Korea “remains focused on our global pressure campaign that is designed to bring Kim Jong-un to the table for meaningful negotiations,” said Brian Hook, a senior policy advisor.

He said the US wanted “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula”.

On Chinese television, commentators highlighted the importance of sports diplomacy in history, recalling “ping-pong diplomacy” was credited with thawing relations between the US and Communist China in 1971.

The success of the American ping pong team’s tour to China in April 1971 paved the way for US president Richard Nixon’s visit 10 months later, reviving diplomatic relations after 22-years.

Some observers cautioned that North Korea may attempt to wedge South Korea and the US, and expect an easing of tough United Nations sanctions in return for its participation in the Olympics.

South Korea’s proposal at the meeting to hold a reunification event for families during the Lunar New Year, on February 16, was not mentioned in the joint statement.

Family reunification has been a priority for Moon, elected in May, whose parents were North Korean refugees.

South Korean media reported that the last time the two Koreas marched together at the Olympics was the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Just days before the opening ceremony, speed skater Lee Bo-ran received a phone call from her coach, telling her she had been selected as the Korean Peninsula flag bearer, along with North Korean male figure skater Han Jong-in.

“I want to see the South-North joint march again at the Winter Olympic Games. It will be more meaningful as the Team Korea will be the last team in as the host country,” she told Yonhap on Tuesday.

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