Wednesday 23 January 2019

Seoul welcomes Kim offer of talks on Winter Games

South Korean Unification Minster Cho Myoung-gyon. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean Unification Minster Cho Myoung-gyon. Photo: Ahn Young-joon/AP

Julian Ryall

South Korea has called for talks next week so that North Korean athletes can take part in the upcoming Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games.

The proposal was announced by Cho Myoung-gyon, head of Seoul's Unification Ministry, in response to comments by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, in his New Year's address.

"We sincerely hope that the Winter Games will be a success", Mr Kim said in his televised speech. "We are willing to take various steps, including the dispatch of the delegation."

Pyongyang had previously ignored all efforts by the South to confirm that it would be sending athletes to the Games, which run for 14 days from February 9.

Two North Korean figure skaters have qualified to compete but the country's National Olympic Committee did not meet an October 30 deadline to accept their spot.

Moon Jae-in, the South Korean president, has welcomed Mr Kim's comments as a breakthrough in severely strained North-South ties.

"I view Chairman Kim Jong-un's remarks, about sending a North Korean delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics and holding government-level dialogue, as a response to our proposal to turn the Pyeongchang Olympic Games into a groundbreaking chance to improve South-North relations and establish peace", Mr Moon said.

Seoul has proposed the discussions take place at Panmunjom, the truce village that sits on the border in the middle of the Demilitarised Zone.

The meeting will be the first government-level discussions between the two nations in more than two years.

Ahead of the Games, Mr Moon has asked the Americans to delay joint annual military drills with the South that are scheduled to begin next month. Washington has yet to respond to the request.

Yet the media and political analysts have warned the South Korean government to remain wary of Pyongyang's motivation for agreeing to talks.

A report by the Institute for National State Security has said Seoul's delegation at the talks is likely to be told North Korea will only consent to taking part in the Games if the South unilaterally lifts sanctions on the North, resumes cross-border economic projects and provides financial assistance.

Pyongyang could also demand that the South halt all military drills with US forces and that Washington withdraws units from the Korean peninsula.

In an editorial, the 'Korea Herald' newspaper warned the North's offer was a "double-edged message".

"South Korea needs to make a measured response focused on thawing frozen inter-Korean relations and fostering an atmosphere for dialogue toward the denuclearisation of the North," it said.

"The South also must not lower its guard to prevent it from playing into the North's hands.

"It is questionable whether Kim made the overture to send a delegation to the Olympics out of pure intentions."

Irish Independent

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