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North Korea to join Olympics in South Korea as tensions ease

North Korea to join Olympics in South Korea as tensions ease
South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, right, shakes hands with the head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son Gwon, during their meeting at Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on Jan 9. (Associated Press)

The first high-level diplomatic talks between North and South Korea in two years ended Tuesday with a historic deal inviting Pyongyang to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympics.

The negotiations began, however, with a lighter topic that perhaps seemed natural for distant peers getting reacquainted.

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They talked about the weather.

"It's snowing," said Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea's unification minister, during his opening statement. "How was the travel from Pyongyang?"

Ri Son-gwon, his North Korean counterpart, also bemoaned the below-freezing conditions as the parties gathered at Panmunjom, a diplomatic outpost in the Demilitarized Zone, 30 miles north of Seoul.

Ri then refocused their small talk into a metaphor about the meeting's purpose: improving the two nations' strained ties, starting with the Games, which begin next month at a South Korean ski village east of Seoul.

"It wouldn't be an overstatement to say the inter-Korean relationship is more frozen than the natural climate," Ri said, leading a five-member delegation from the North. "But despite the cold weather, the people's desire for the improvement of inter-Korean relationship remains unfrozen."

By day's end, the two parties had settled on a joint statement, confirming a role for North Korea in the Olympics that would include athletes, a delegation of government officials and even a contingent of fans. They also agreed that the "current military tension must be resolved."

If the deal holds, it would be the North's first Winter Olympics since 2010. The last time the Olympics were held in South Korea, the 1988 Summer Games, the North boycotted.

The parties' initial purpose for meeting was to secure participation by the North, which is isolated and facing international sanctions for its illicit pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

But both sides agreed to cooperate in other areas to improve relations.

"North and South will make joint effort to alleviate military tension, establish peaceful environment of the peninsula, and promote reconciliation and unity of the Korean people," a joint statement said.

The countries have endured periods of high tensions, but also mutual cooperation, in the six decades since an armistice ended the Korean War.

The relationship had been at a low point because the North repeatedly violated United Nations resolutions in 2017 by test launching ballistic missiles and conducting a nuclear detonation.

The agreement to hold the talks emerged after the North's leader, Kim Jong-un, made unusually conciliatory statements during a New Year's Day speech last week.

The grandson of the country's founder, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un is a sports fan who attended school for a time in Switzerland, a winter sports mecca.

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In his speech, the North Korean leader said he hoped the Games would be a success, and he raised the issue of his nation's participation, much to the delight of South Korean officials.

They have been dogged with questions about whether the North would disrupt the Games or depress ticket sales.

The South's president, Moon Jae-in, came to power hoping for more dialogue. The totalitarian state's repeated ballistic missile tests in 2017 had diminished those hopes, however.

Still, Moon has talked of using the Games as a catalyst for peace, and his government offered to sit for talks almost immediately after Kim's gesture.

The Trump administration supported the discussions, while also publicly announcing a delay in U.S.-South Korean military drills — a source of annual frustration for the North — until after the Games.

"Trump has already taken credit for the fact that these initial talks are occurring. He gets to be on the side of peace," said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, a research and consulting firm.

On Tuesday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, said the agreement was welcomed news.

She said the U.S. remains in close consultations with South Korean officials, "who will ensure North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics does not violate the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council over North Korea's unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs."

The negotiators began their meeting about 10 a.m. inside a diplomatic building at Panmunjom, a border outpost along the Demilitarized Zone, the 160-mile buffer separating the two nations from east to west.

Both Moon and Kim Jong Un could listen in on the discussions and submit suggestions via fax to their respective negotiating teams, the South's Unification Ministry said.

The negotiators sat across from one another hours at a long, rectangular negotiating table. They sipped "PyeongChang water" and red ginseng tea, catered by a South Korean conglomerate.

Yet despite a jovial and earnest atmosphere, Ri raised concerns in his closing statement about the issue of denuclearization. He said that shouldn't be a topic for South Korean reporters covering the talks.

"All the high-tech strategic weapons we possess are aimed at the United States," he said. "They are not aimed at our people, or at China and Russia."

Other issues related to the deal remain.

Two figure skaters from the North had 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 possibility that the North would send athletes and government officials to South Korea prompted several questions that presumably would be need to be addressed before the Games.

Would South Korea's own sanctions regime make it difficult for the athletes and other North Korean officials to travel to Seoul? A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the South would consider lifting sanctions for the Games, if necessary.

Also, would the two nations appear together during the Games, such as during opening or closing ceremonies? Seoul proposed a joint entry into the Olympic stadium, and the North pledged to consider it.

Other details must still be decided, according to the joint statement.

"The two sides will hold working-level talks to discuss dispatching an advance party for field survey and North Korea's participation in the Winter Olympics. Schedule will be decided by exchanging documents later on," it said.

Kim Joon-hyung, a professor of international studies at Handong Global University in Pohang, South Korea, said the deal wasn't a surprise given that a clear directive came directly from Kim Jong Un.

"They tried to show some kind of sincerity," he said of the North Korean negotiators. "Later on, they might ask for something in return."

That's precisely what worries some North Korea watchers, such as Sean King, a former senior advisor on Asia policy at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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"The talks themselves, intellectually, I can't argue with," he said. "I just worry about what they might get in terms of money and assistance. Just when we're starting to get them on the ropes, I don't want to give them any life."

Moon hasn't said what concessions, if any, might be proposed. He remains quite popular in South Korea six months into his term, with about 70% of residents saying in polls that they approve of his handling of the job.

But the president's desire for talks has political pitfalls, especially among conservatives who are skeptical of the North's overtures, which have been empty at times in the past.

It's a risk Moon — whose parents fled the North during the Korean War — is willing to take as he seeks to accomplish his long-term goal of thawing the two nations' long-frozen relations.

Stiles is a special correspondent.

UPDATES:

9:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the talks.

This article was originally published at 6:55 a.m.

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