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North Korea Agrees to Participate in Olympics in South Korea


FILE - A man walks by the Olympic rings with a sign of 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games, in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 3, 2017.

North Korea agreed Tuesday to participate in the PyeongChang Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

This agreement came out of high-level Inter-Korean talks that are underway to facilitate North Korean participation in the Olympics, and to look for ways to reduce heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and missiles development programs.

New Year’s gift

Ri Son Gwon, the head of the North Korean delegation and the chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of North Korea, set an optimist tone for the meeting.

"We came to this meeting today with a serious and sincere attitude and with the thought of giving our brethren, who have high hopes for this dialogue, invaluable results as the first present of the year," he said.

In this image made from video released by KRT on Jan. 1, 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers his annual address from an undisclosed location in North Korea.
In this image made from video released by KRT on Jan. 1, 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivers his annual address from an undisclosed location in North Korea.

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, who is leading his country’s delegation in the talks, expressed hope that this first official inter-Korean meeting in two years will lead to further dialogue and cooperation.

"Our talks resume after the North and South Korean ties have been severed for a long time, but I believe the first step is half the journey. I would like to hold this meeting with tenacity and perseverance," he said.

Olympic cooperation

At the talks, North Korea agreed to send to the Olympics a delegation of high-ranking officials, athletes, a cheering squad, a Taekwondo demonstration team, and a number of journalists.

Currently only two North Korean figure skaters have qualified for the games. Although North Korea missed the deadline to participate in the 2018 games, the International Olympic Committee could still extend invitations to compete.

South Korean media had earlier reported that the government in Seoul was prepared to suspend unilateral sanctions imposed on North Korean officials and the state run airline Air Koryo, which might prevent the North from participating.

Seoul proposed that the Olympic teams from the two Koreas march together in the opening ceremony.

South Korea also proposed setting up further talks to organize for reunions of separated families around Lunar New Year's holiday that will occur during the Olympics.

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​And Seoul called for subsequent military talks, and emphasized the need to negotiate a denuclearization deal to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula.

The inter-Korean Olympics dialogue already succeeded in reopening direct communication between Seoul and Pyongyang that was severed in early 2016 following a North Korean nuclear test and rocket launch.

"At least the telephone hotline is open. So that means that even if we get into some dark stuff, we get into additional ballistic missile drills or a nuclear test, we might see an opportunity of the North calling up the South," said Michael Madden, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS.)

Since taking office in May of 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has tried to increase dialogue and engagement with the North while also supporting strong sanctions against Pyongyang for developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

The inter-Korean talks are being held on the southern side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that separates the divided peninsula at the truce village of Panmunjeom, where the 1953 armistice agreement to end the Korean War was signed.

Leaders in Seoul and Pyongyang are able to monitor the negotiations through a closed circuit television connection.

Allies cautious

The U.S. has expressed cautious support for the inter-Korean talks and agreed to postpone joint military exercises with South Korea until the after games.

People watch a television news screen showing pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul, Nov. 29, 2017.
People watch a television news screen showing pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul, Nov. 29, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who in the past has said negotiations with the Kim government are useless, this week called the new talks "a good thing" that came as a result of "firm, strong" stance, and that the U.S. would get involved in the negotiations "at the appropriate time.”

But the State Department has voiced concern that Pyongyang "might be trying to drive a wedge" between Washington and Seoul and weaken U.S.-led efforts to force North Korea to give up its development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga on Tuesday also welcomed North Korean interest in joining the Pyeongchang Games but also reiterated that Pyongyang’s nuclear program remains a grave international threat and that the U.N. sanctions imposed on Pyongyang must continue to be strictly implemented.

Youmi Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.

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