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Koreas reach agreement on winter Olympics participation

South and North Korea have today (Wednesday) reached an agreement to field a joint women’s ice hockey team at the 2018 winter Olympic Games along with marching together under a “unified Korea” flag at the opening ceremony, while the North has also committed to its first winter Paralympic Games.

The announcement was made through a joint statement issued following the latest round of talks held between the countries at the border village of Panmunjom. North Korea is set to send a delegation of more than 400 to Pyeongchang, including 230 cheerleaders, 140 artists and 30 taekwondo athletes for a demonstration, with the precise figures set to be finalised at an International Olympic Committee (IOC) meeting scheduled for Saturday.

Korean officials had earlier maintained that the government had no plans to push for joint teams in sports other than women’s ice hockey. A unified Korean team in figure skating’s team event and bobsleigh had been touted after news on the ice hockey proposal was confirmed on Friday. 

The Koreas have previously fielded joint teams at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and the 1991 Fifa World Youth Championship, but have never had a unified team at a major multi-sport event such as the Olympics or Asian Games.

Korean news agency Yonhap today said North Korea’s delegation will use a western land route, marking the opening of the cross-border road for the first time since February 2016. The two countries have also agreed to hold a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang on the North Korean east coast before the opening of the Olympics on February 9, and to conduct training for skiers at Masikryong Ski Resort in the North.

Yonhap added that the South’s government is carefully assessing means to welcome the North’s Olympic delegation in a way that does not violate existing sanctions on the communist regime. United Nations sanctions mean the South can’t offer cash directly to the North when it supports delegates’ accommodation expenses. Sea travel could also be in violation of South Korea's unilateral sanctions that ban entry to the country of any vessel that has sailed to North Korea within the past year.

The Olympics has long been seen as means to improve relations between the Koreas that have become fractured due to the North’s rising nuclear ambitions. Earlier today, President Moon Jae-in hailed North Korea’s participation as a chance to improve the frosty relationship. “I believe it will be a great opportunity to thaw the South-North Korea relationship that is frozen solid,” Moon said.

North Korea has never participated in a winter Paralympics and it has also reportedly agreed to send a 150-member delegation of athletes, cheerleaders, an art troupe and reporters to the Games which run from March 9-18. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is expected to address the matter at a meeting later this month.

However, North Korea’s moves have not been widely hailed. A group of 20 nations meeting in the Canadian city of Vancouver yesterday (Tuesday) agreed to consider tougher sanctions to press North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons.

At the meeting, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said the world should not be naive about North Korea's “charm offensive” over the Olympics. “It is not the time to ease pressure, or to reward North Korea,” Kono said, according to the Reuters news agency. “The fact that North Korea is engaging in dialogue could be interpreted as proof that the sanctions are working.”