In a rare gesture of unity after recent threats of “enveloping fire,” North and South Korea agreed Wednesday to march together under a unified flag during the opening ceremony at next month’s Winter Olympics.
The announcement also includes plans to organize a joint women’s ice hockey team, which if approved would be the first combined Korean team for the Olympics — a symbolic milestone that comes only days after a false ballistic missile scare sent shock waves across Hawaii.
But analysts said it was too soon to say whether the Olympic accord amounted to a breakthrough — or just a breather.
United Nations General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia said on Twitter he was “heartened” by the Koreas’ plans to march together.
But Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono warned earlier against too much optimism over the North’s Olympics gestures. “It is not the time to ease pressure or to reward North Korea,” he said. "The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working."
The latest agreements, released in a statement late Wednesday after 12 hours of talks in the Demilitarized Zone dividing the peninsula, were among several public signs that the two sides plan to project unity before and during the Winter Games, which begin Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, about 40 miles south of the DMZ.
North Korea will send a 230-member “cheering squad” to the Games, who will join supporters from South Korea to cheer athletes from both countries. The two nations also plan to hold joint training and cultural events, though decisions about which North Korean athletes will compete ultimately will be left to the International Olympic Committee, which plans to meet with both sides on Saturday.
The news of a small rapprochement stood in stark contrast to recent acrimonious outbursts between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea’s rapidly progressing nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
As North Korea has notched unprecedented advances, President Trump has derided its leader, Kim Jong Un, as “Little Rocket Man,” and Kim called Trump a “dotard.” Trump threatened “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Trump, in an interview Wednesday with the Reuters news agency, said it was possible that tension with North Korea could be resolved peacefully, “but it’s very possible that it can’t.”
The president in the past has not ruled out direct talks with North Korea’s leader, but in the interview, he expressed doubts as to whether such a course would yield any success.
“I’d sit down, but I‘m not sure that sitting down will solve the problem,” he said.
The recent North-South talks, though, had a narrower focus. Efforts by South Korea to include the North in the Games progressed rapidly after conciliatory comments made by Kim during his annual New Year’s Day speech.
Kim’s words prompted the South, which sensed the chance to use the Olympics as a catalyst, to suggest talks.
The two nations have since agreed upon the North’s participation, its first in the Winter Games since 2010, and have also agreed to allow the isolated nation to bring a large musical troupe south for performances.
Lisa Collins, a Koreas expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called the Olympic accord a “positive first step” at a time of high tensions.
“The fact that they’re talking is a good sign,” she said. But she emphasized that she did not see a “significant shift in the North Korea security calculus.”
One thing to watch for, Collins and other Korea observers said, was whether tensions would rise again with a major U.S.-South Korea military exercise scheduled to take place in the spring. The annual maneuvers were delayed, but North Korea has demanded they be scrapped altogether — a demand to which Seoul and Washington are unlikely to accede.
Wednesday’s talks focused on the specifics of the Olympics participation agreement. The negotiations took place at Panmunjom, a diplomatic base inside the DMZ, a buffer separating two nations that have coexisted on the peninsula amid tension since the Korean War.
The three rounds of recent dialogue have been the first talks between the two countries since late 2015, when contact ceased following a series of provocations by the North.
Those provocations, including a nuclear detonation and numerous ballistic missile tests, have continued, escalating tensions between Pyongyang and much of the international community.
Wednesday’s talks included a long list of other plans, including allowing a taekwondo demonstration team and a large cheering squad to travel from the North to the Games.
It remains unclear, however, whether a North Korean ice skating duo that initially qualified but missed an entry deadline would be able to compete — and whether the hockey team can compete in an exhibitory capacity. (Neither team would be favorites to win medals competing alone, according to world rankings.)
Both nations were scheduled to meet with Olympic officials Saturday outside Geneva.
The North-South talks so far have been cordial, but there were signs that the veneer of comity was beginning to wear amid familiar disagreements and commentary from political and media groups on both sides.
The Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean official news outlet aimed at foreign audiences, has focused attacks on Trump in recent days. One article suggested that the North might back out of the Olympics deal as a result of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s recent praise of the American leader.
The North’s media isn’t alone in its criticism of the Olympic talks.
A South Korean newspaper, JoongAng Ilbo, published an editorial Wednesday criticizing the plans for a joint women’s hockey team.
"The government appears to be turning a blind eye to the 'blood, sweat and tears' of our athletes … to prioritize its political goal of achieving ethnic harmony over the sacred Olympic spirit of fair competition,” the editorial said.
Jong-hwan Do, the South’s minister of culture, sports and tourism, addressed that question at a Cabinet meeting with Moon on Tuesday.
“Our athletes will not be affected,” he said. “We have similar athletic performance, and if outstanding North Korean athletes participate, our record will be strengthened.”
The Olympics developments were reminiscent of the Asian Games in 2014, hosted in Incheon, a city near Seoul. The two nations came together in a show of unity, including the use of a single flag — a white rectangle featuring the blue silhouette of the peninsula.