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North Korea says it wants to go to the Winter Olympics in the South

North Korea says it wants to go to the Winter Olympics in the South
A man passes by official mascots of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, white tiger Soohorang for the Olympics, and Asiatic black bear Bandabi for the Paralympics, in downtown Seoul on Monday. (Lee Jin-man / Associated Press)

North Korean officials said Tuesday that they want to send athletes and a high-level government delegation to the Winter Olympics next month in South Korea.

Their statement came during the first day of diplomatic talks between the two countries.

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The details would still need to be worked out, but it would be the first time the North has participated in the Winter Olympics since 2010.

The "high-level" meetings — the first formal negotiations between the two Koreas in more than two years — initially focused on North Korea's potential involvement in the Games. But both sides have suggested that the talks could lead to a broader dialogue about improving inter-Korean relations, which have soured in recent years.

The two countries, parties to an uneasy truce since the end of the Korean War, severed their remaining ties in early 2016 after the closure of a shared industrial complex in the border village of Kaesong, North Korea.

Both sides now seem eager to craft a deal allowing the North to send a delegation to the Olympics, hosted by South Korea in the eastern skiing and tourist village of Pyeongchang.

The talks opened about 10 a.m. with lead negotiators for both delegations exchanging pleasantries, small talk and opening statements.

The South's unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon, recalled last year's historic street protests in Seoul and across his country that led to the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye amid corruption.

"Last year, South Korea experienced how strong people's will is. And we are clearly aware of people's desire for the reconciliation and peace between the two Koreas," he said. "People's will is heaven's will, and we will have to engage in today's meeting earnestly and sincerely to fulfill people's will."

His North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, struck a similar tone, referring to "heaven's will" in his opening remarks.

"I came today, hoping that the North and South engage in today's meeting with sincere, earnest attitude and present the first gift of the new year to the Korean people, who are watching today's meeting with high anticipation," he said.

Two figure skaters from the North initially qualified for the Games, but they missed a deadline to compete. Their participation now could require permission from the International Olympic Committee, perhaps at Seoul's request.

The Games run from Feb. 9-25. The Winter Paralympics begin in March.

The talks are being held in a diplomatic building at Panmunjom, a border outpost in the demilitarized zone, the 160-mile-long buffer area separating the two nations.

The 30-mile bus ride north to the negotiation site by South Korean officials was carried live on television in Seoul. Journalists and photographers also crowded onto Tong-il Bridge at the border early Tuesday as the South's negotiators passed into the DMZ, where civilians are generally only allowed to enter with permission and escorts.

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While the initial scope of the talks remains the Olympics, South Korean officials expressed hope that the meeting might reduce tensions on the peninsula over the North's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

That could lead to greater cooperation on other issues, such as reuniting families still separated by the Korean War, which has divided the peninsula for the last six decades.

The South had proposed talks over such reunification issues in July, but the North never responded.

An agreement to hold the talks came together quickly after the North's leader, Kim Jong Un, made unusually conciliatory statements during a New Year's Day speech last week. The young leader said he hoped the Games would be a success and raised the issue of sending a delegation to Pyeongchang.

The South, whose president, Moon Jae-in, has hoped to use the Games as a catalyst for peace and better relations with the North, promptly offered to sit for talks. The Trump administration has supported the idea, announcing a delay in U.S.-South Korean military drills — a source of annual frustration for the North — until after the Games.

A long-dormant communications channel between the countries was then reopened, allowing the details of the meeting to be arranged through phone conversations and faxed documents.

Moon remains popular in South Korea six months into his term, with an approval rating of roughly 70%. But the president's desire for talks has political risks, especially among conservatives who are skeptical of the North's overtures.

"What this government is doing is not eradicating nuclear weapons, but maintaining the status quo, begging for peace and letting more time pass by," said Hong Joon-pyo, who chairs the conservative Liberty Party Korea, Moon's main opposition.

The talks, which could last into the week, are the first since 2015, when high-level delegations met at the same location to discuss a border standoff that threatened to spill over into armed conflict. The tensions began then when two South Korean soldiers were maimed by landmines the South believed were planted by the North. Pyongyang denied the allegation.

Two months later, then-President Park temporarily closed the Kaesong complex, a joint economic zone in which hundreds of South Korean companies employed thousands of North Korean workers.

Park made the decision in response to North Korean provocations, including an underground nuclear test. The North then seized South Korean assets in the factories, leading to two years of frozen relations between the two countries.

Stiles is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

9:55 p.m.: This article was updated with the news that North Korea wants to participate in the Winter Olympics next month.

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8:10 p.m.: This article was updated with opening remarks and other details from the start of the talks.

5:50 p.m.: This article was updated with the news that the talks have started.

This article was originally published at 12:30 p.m.

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