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PyeongChang Olympics chief welcomes N. Korea's historic participation

All News 22:22 January 09, 2018

SEOUL, Jan. 9 (Yonhap) -- The top organizer for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Tuesday welcomed North Korea's decision to participate in the quadrennial event.

North Korea is set to make a historic appearance at next month's Winter Olympics south of the heavily fortified border, following an inter-Korean agreement reached on Tuesday.

At the first formal talks between the Koreas in more than two years, the North agreed to send its athletes to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games, scheduled to run from Feb. 9 to 25. North Korea also offered to dispatch high-ranking officials, its national Olympic committee representatives, cheering and performing squads, a taekwondo demonstration team and journalists.

In this file photo taken Feb. 12, 2006, athletes from South and North Korea march in together at the opening ceremony of the Torino Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. South Korean speed skater Lee Bo-ra (front L) and North Korean figure skater Han Jong-in hold the Korean Peninsula Flag together. (Yonhap)

The South in turn offered to provide all necessary conveniences for the North Koreans during the quadrennial competition.

PyeongChang officials have said they've long been making preparations for possible North Korean participation in the quadrennial event. And Lee Hee-beom, head of the Olympic organizing committee, said he welcomed North Korea's participation.

"There has been plenty of speculation on whether North Korea would participate or not, but now that it's been confirmed, we'll have to be prepared that much more," Lee said. "Accommodation for athletes and other officials is all ready. Since the cheering and performing squads will also make their way, we'll have to make our preparations accordingly."

It will be the North's first Olympic appearance in South Korea. Pyongyang boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul.

Lee has repeatedly said in the past that any peace-loving country, including North Korea, has a duty to participate in the Olympic Games.

As for how the North Korean delegation will travel across the border, Lee said it will be up to the South Korean government.

Last May, in an interview with Reuters, Lee said the South would allow North Koreans "to come by road" should they decide to compete in the Olympics.

Typically, North Korean athletes taking part in events in the South have flown in via Beijing. The Korean Peninsula has remained divided since 1953, with the demilitarized zone (DMZ), a 4km-wide buffer zone, guarded on either side by troops.

This photo, taken by the Joint Press Corps at Panmunjom on Jan. 9, 2018, shows South Korea's chief delegate Cho Myoung-gyon (R) and his North Korean counterpart Ri Son-gwon during high-level talks between South and North Korea. (Yonhap)

The North's presence will go a long way toward helping PyeongChang realize one of its visions for the Olympics -- promoting peace through the competition. PyeongChang lies 180 kilometers east of Seoul in Gangwon Province and only about 80 kilometers south of the border.

Inter-Korean sports exchanges were almost non-existent under the past two conservative administrations in Seoul, but liberal-minded President Moon Jae-in started taking a more conciliatory stance after taking office last May.

Only weeks before Moon was elected, athletes from both Koreas made cross-border trips for competitions. The South Korean women's football team went to Pyongyang for the Asian Football Confederation Women's Asian Cup qualifying matches in early April. Around the same time, the North Korean women's hockey team came to Gangneung, Gangwon Province, for the International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship Division II Group A.

As early as June last year, South Korea raised the possibility of forming a joint Korean team at the PyeongChang Olympics. Both Moon and Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan openly called on North Korea to participate in the competition, saying its presence would help improve strained inter-Korean ties.

In this file photo taken Oct. 1, 2002, members of a cheering squad from North Korea show support for their athletes at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. (Yonhap)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also supported South Korea's overtures, saying such ideas reflect the Olympic spirit of promoting peace and goodwill.

The size of the North Korean athletic delegation remains up in the air, since North Korea currently doesn't have any qualified athletes for PyeongChang. But it should have little problem sending at least a few to a select events in PyeongChang, because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has pledged its support to ensure North Korea's participation and may well grant the country some wild-card spots.

The North Korean pairs figure skating team of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik qualified for PyeongChang last fall, but North Korea missed an Oct. 30 deadline to submit the tandem's entry. Should the IOC decide to open up extra spots for North Korean athletes, Ryom and Kim are prime candidates to receive one.

North Korea has won a few medals at Summer Olympics over the years but has been invisible in previous Winter Games. It didn't send any athletes to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, four years ago and won no medals in the two competitions before that. North Korea has won just one silver and one bronze in its eight Winter Games appearances so far.

PyeongChang Olympics chief welcomes N. Korea's historic participation - 4

North Korea has been mostly represented in ice events, such as short track, figure skating and speed skating.

The two Koreas will hold further working-level talks to hammer out details of North Korea's participation. During those talks, the two sides are also expected to have more discussions on a joint march at the opening ceremony in PyeongChang.

South Korea proposed the joint march during the morning session of Tuesday's meeting, but North Korea had no immediate response. After the conclusion of the talks, Seoul officials said the sides were "getting closer" on reaching an agreement on marching in as one Korea at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium.

It would be the first joint Korean march at an international multi-sport competition since the 2007 Changchun Asian Winter Games and 10th such occasion overall.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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