Sunday 22 July 2018

North Korea to join Olympics in South as tensions ease amid rare talks

The heads of the South and North Korean delegations shake hands after their meeting at Panmunjom (Yonhap/AP)
The heads of the South and North Korean delegations shake hands after their meeting at Panmunjom (Yonhap/AP)
South Korean and North Korean delegations meet at Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone in Paju (Yonhap/AP)

North and South Korea have moved to reduce their bitter animosity during rare talks, as the North agreed to send a team to next month's Winter Olympics in the South, hold talks on reducing tension along the border and reopen a military hotline.

The meeting, the first of its kind in about two years, was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties following a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programmes.

Critics say he may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.

"I think we took an important first step toward the development of South-North relations," chief South Korean delegate Cho Myoung-gyon said after the talks, according to media footage from the border village of Panmunjom.

His North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, read a joint statement in which the two Koreas agreed to "actively co-operate" in the Pyeongchang Olympics to "enhance the prestige of the Korean people".

He said Pyongyang will send a delegation of officials, athletes, cheerleaders and journalists and South Korea will provide necessary services for the delegation.

"I believe that North Korea's participation in the Pyeongchang Games will provide us with a chance to reduce tension on the Korean peninsula," said Mr Cho, whose official title is unification minister.

During an earlier era of inter-Korean detente, athletes from the two Koreas paraded together at international sports events such as the Olympics and fielded a unified Korean team.

The government of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants the two Koreas to agree to similar reconciliatory steps at the February 9-25 Pyeongchang Games.

North Korea is weak in winter sports and a pair of figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, earlier became the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the Games before the North missed a confirmation deadline.

The International Olympic Committee said it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games.

North Korea also agreed to hold military talks with South Korea aimed at reducing animosity along their tense border and to restore a military hotline communication channel, according to Mr Cho and Mr Ri.

The restoration of the hotline was the second in about a week. All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down amid animosity over the North's nuclear programme in recent years.

Mr Cho said Seoul also called for talks at an early date on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula to promote peace.

He said the two Koreas would continue high-level talks but did not say when the next meeting would take place.

South Korean officials earlier said they also suggested resuming temporary reunions of families separated by war, but the joint statement did not mention reunions.

The countries have a long history of failing to follow through with rapprochement accords.

In 2015, negotiators met for nearly 40 hours before announcing a deal to pull back from a military stand-off caused by land mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers.

But animosities flared again several months later after the North's fourth nuclear test.

The meeting's venue, Panmunjom, is the only place on the tense border where North and South Korean soldiers are just yards away from each other.

AP

Press Association

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