Monday 20 August 2018

Olympic flame fuels the Korean thaw as teams unite for Games

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Pyongyang Teacher Training College yesterday. Photo: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Photo: Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at Pyongyang Teacher Training College yesterday. Photo: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Photo: Reuters

James Rothwell

North and South Korea have agreed to form a joint women's hockey team and march under the same flag for a parade at next month's Winter Olympics, in a major step towards easing tensions on the peninsula.

Officials from both sides hope the games, which will be held just 50 miles south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), will help ease tensions between the North's isolated dictator and the South's US-allied president.

US Vice-President Mike Pence. Photo: Reuters
US Vice-President Mike Pence. Photo: Reuters

North Korea also said yesterday that it would send a 550-member delegation to the event, in the mountainous county of Pyeongchang, as the two sides met to discuss athlete numbers in the latest in a flurry of cross-border talks.

Seoul has attempted to present the event as a "peace Olympics" in the face of tensions over the North's weapons programme - which has already led to several UN Security Council sanctions - and the discussions represent a marked improvement.

The two Koreas will march together under a unification flag - a pale blue silhouette of the whole Korean peninsula - at the opening ceremony for the February 9-25 Games, according to a press statement issued by the South last night.

North Korea, however, declined to discuss plans to send a high-level delegation to the games when the issue was raised by Seoul, Chun Hae-Sung, the South's vice-unification minister, said.

The statement also said that the South will send skiers to the Masikryong ski resort in the North for joint training with the North Koreans. Mr Chun clarified these would be non-Olympic skiers.

"The South and North must continue working on remaining issues on the basis of today's agreements," Mr Chun told reporters following the meeting at the southern side of the border truce village of Panmunjom.

"We hope the South and North will be able to make the Pyeongchang Olympics a peace Olympics," Mr Chun added.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must approve extra Olympic slots for the North's athletes after they failed to qualify or missed deadlines to register.

The North agreed to send 230 cheerleaders to support athletes from the two Koreas during the Olympics and to form a joint cheering squad with the South.

A 30-strong North Korean Taekwondo delegation will also visit the South next month for demonstrations in Pyeongchang and Seoul.

Pyongyang also said it will send a separate 150-member delegation of supporters, athletes, performers, journalists and delegates to the Paralympics in March.

The statement said Seoul would "guarantee the safety and convenience of North Korea's delegation", which Mr Chun said referred to transportation, accommodation and other necessary facilities.

One major hurdle remains outstanding - who will represent Kim Jong-un at the Games?

Speculation in South Korean circles is focusing on the North Korean leader's right-hand man, Choe Ryong-hae (67) or his 20-something younger sister Kim Yo-jong, whose star is rising in the ruling Workers' Party.

Kim Yong-nam (89), a seasoned former foreign minister who previously attended the 2014 Winter Olympics, has been touted as a third option.

But while their seniority fits the bill for attending such a high-profile event, the issue of sanctions against both the regime and individual officials will be tricky to navigate.

Mr Choe, the vice-chairman of the State Affairs Commission, who was elected as a member of the North's military commission last year, is on South Korea's financial sanctions list, while the US Treasury department in January sanctioned Ms Kim over the regime's human rights violations.

It is still unclear whether either individual would be allowed to travel to the South, in particular to attend the glitzy opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, where they would be rubbing shoulders with world leaders including US Vice-President Mike Pence.

Ms Kim has taken on a much more public role, appearing alongside her brother at key party events and during factory visits. She is believed to have been instrumental in trying to shape his public image as a benevolent leader.

Mr Choe, a party veteran who has in the past fallen out of favour with the party leadership, is said to have gained Kim Jong-un's trust by promoting his ascension after the death of his father Kim Jong-il.

"If Kim Yo-jong were to come, it'll be the first time for any Kim family member to visit South Korea," said Shin Beomchul, a professor at Korea National Diplomatic Academy in Seoul.

In a separate development, Donald Trump last night criticised Russia for undermining efforts to get North Korea to the table with diplomatic pressure.

The US president told Reuters: "Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea. What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing."

Last month, it was claimed that Russian tankers had supplied fuel to North Korea on at least three occasions in recent months, violating international sanctions.

Mr Trump also declined to say if he had talked to Kim Jong-un since taking office and warned that the regime was "close" to developing a missile that could hit America.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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