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North Korea agrees to send athletes to Winter Olympics after talks with South

Tuesday - 09/01/2018 10:46
Delegation including cheerleaders will travel to Games despite rising tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme

North Korea will send athletes and cheerleaders to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, after the two countries held their first official talks for more than two years.

The North Korean party will also include performing artists and journalists, South Korea’s vice unification minister, Chun Hae-sung, said after the first session of talks ended on Tuesday.

Chun added that South Korea had proposed that the two Koreas march together during the opening and closing ceremonies at the Pyeongchang Games, which open on 9 February.

The agreement represents a cautious diplomatic breakthrough after months of rising tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

The two sides also agreed to reopen a military hotline that has been dormant since February 2016. Communications are expected to resume on Wednesday.

Seoul called for discussions between the countries’ Red Cross organisations, as well as military talks designed to reduce the chances of a conflict breaking out due to an accident or miscalculation.

“Let’s present the people with a precious new year’s gift,” said Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the North’s committee for the peaceful reunification of the fatherland and head of the country’s delegation. “There is a saying that a journey taken by two lasts longer than the one travelled alone.”

South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, told Ri that Seoul believed “guests from the North are going to join many others from all around the world” at Pyeongchang. “The people have a strong desire to see the North and South move towards peace and reconciliation,” he said.

The North Korean delegation travelled to the border in a motorcade and then walked across the military demarcation line into the southern side of the truce village of Panmunjom at around 9.30 am local time. The village straddles the demilitarised zone (DMZ), the heavily armed border that has separated the two Koreas for more than six decades.

As the two sides sat down for their first face-to-face talks since December 2015, North Korean media hit back at Donald Trump’s claim that his tough stance against Pyongyang had facilitated the Olympic negotiations.

The Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of the ruling Workers’ party, said Trump’s claim that sanctions and pressure on the regime had brought him “diplomatic success” during his first year in the White House was “ridiculous sophism”.

Discussions focused on North Korean participation in the Pyeongchang Winter Games, but included other inter-Korean issues such as the resumption of reunions between family members who were separated at the end of the 1950-53 Korean war. South Korea has suggested holding reunions during the Lunar New Year holidays next month.

The two sides will have to work out details such as the size of the North Korean delegation, which is expected to be dominated by members of the country’s female cheerleading group.

The North Korean party could spend the Games staying on a cruise ship in Sokcho, about an hour’s drive from the Olympic venue, enabling the hosts to closely monitor their guests.

South Korean media said the delegation could include Kim Yo-Jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in her capacity as a senior official in the ruling party.

South Korea risks angering the US and Japan, however, if, as some have speculated, it has to lift travel bans against several North Korean officials who plan to attend the Games. A foreign ministry spokesman said Seoul would take “prior steps” in tandem with the UN security council to allow the officials to cross the border.

China’s foreign ministry said it was “pleased to see this high-level talk between the two sides, while a Kremlin spokesman said: “This is exactly the kind of dialogue that we said was necessary.”

The two Koreas previously made joint entrances to Olympics opening and closing ceremonies in Sydney in 2000, Athens in 2004 and at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin.

Preparation for the resumption of high-level dialogue – albeit focusing on sport rather than security – have proceeded at breakneck speed since New Year’s Day, when Kim Jong-un said he was willing to discuss North Korean participation in the Games.

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