North Korea to send team to Winter Olympic Games

Media captionNorth and South Korea had a warm meeting in the DMZ

North Korea is to send a delegation to the 2018 Winter Olympic Games taking place in South Korea in February, officials from the South say.

The breakthrough announcement came as the countries met for their first high-level talks in more than two years.

The delegation will include athletes, officials and a group of cheerleaders.

A military hotline between the nations, suspended for nearly two years, will be reinstated from Wednesday, the South’s officials said.

What’s happened at the talks?

They have continued all day and the developments have been conveyed by officials from the South:

  • Vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung told journalists: “The North side proposed dispatching a high-level delegation, National Olympic Committee delegation, athletes, supporters, art performers, observers, a taekwondo demonstration team and journalists” to the Games
  • The South proposed that athletes from both Koreas march together at the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang as they did at the 2006 Winter Olympics
  • The South pushed for the reunion of family members separated by the Korean War – a highly emotional issue for both countries – to take place during the Lunar New Year holiday, which falls in the middle the Games
  • The South also proposed resuming negotiations over military issues and the North’s nuclear programme
  • The South said it would consider temporarily lifting relevant sanctions, in co-ordination with the UN, to facilitate the North’s participation in the Olympics

The North’s response to all of the South’s proposals is not yet known. The opening remarks of head of the North Korean delegation, Ri Son-gwon, were fairly neutral.

He said he hoped the talks would bring a “good gift” for the new year and that the North had a “serious and sincere stance”.

Where are the talks and how did they come about?

They are being held in the Panmunjom “peace village” in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) at the border.

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Getty Images

Image caption

North Korea first expressed interest in joining the Pyeonchang Games during the New Year

There are five senior officials on each side.

The leaders of both nations are said to be watching the talks via a CCTV feed.

In his New Year address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had said he was considering sending a team to the Olympics. South Korea’s Olympics chief had said last year that the North’s athletes would be welcome.

Following Mr Kim’s overture, the South then proposed high-level talks to discuss the North’s participation, but the North only agreed to the talks after the US and South Korea agreed to delay their joint military exercises until after the Olympics. The North sees the annual drills as a rehearsal for war.

Some critics in the US see the North’s move as an attempt to divide the US-South Korea alliance.


Dramatic change

Analysis: BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Seoul

A little over a week ago North Korea was threatening nuclear war – this morning a delegation from Pyongyang strode across the demarcation line that divides North and South Korea and agreed a North Korean delegation would attend the Pyeongchang Games.

It is a sudden and dramatic change after months of tension. But few in the South believe any of this demonstrates a fundamental shift in Pyongyang’s position.

Experts say North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has become increasingly fearful that the US is planning a military strike against him, and has decided he must do something to de-escalate tensions.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in has been thrust in the delicate position of trying to engage the North in genuine dialogue, while not upsetting his very sceptical American ally.


When were the last talks?

Back in 2015.

Relations then broke down after Seoul suspended a joint economic project at the Kaesong Industrial complex in North Korea following a rocket launch and nuclear test by the North.

The incident led to North Korea ending all communication with Seoul, including cutting off the military hotline.

Media captionLife in a South Korean border town

Tensions have risen in the years since.

How bad have things become?

The North’s development of its nuclear programme has continued unabated and has created a huge diplomatic conflict with the US administration of President Donald Trump.

Mr Trump and Kim Jong-un have conducted a personal feud, with the US leader dubbing Mr Kim “Rocket Man” and boasting that his nuclear button is “much bigger”.

North Korea’s regular missile tests have brought a tightening of UN and US sanctions.

The latest test of a ballistic missile on 28 November sparked another raft of measures from the UN, targeting petrol shipments and travel for North Koreans, among other things.

Media captionTensions are high between the two warring countries

What might we expect at the Olympics?

Pyeongchang, approximately 180km (110 miles) east of Seoul, will host both the Winter Olympics in February and the Winter Paralympics in March.

Media captionNorth Korea’s star ice-skating duo have qualified for the Winter Olympics

There has been no official announcement on the make-up of the North Korean team.

Only two North Korean athletes had qualified for the Games – figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik – although even they missed the participation deadline and would need IOC clearance.

There may be possible wild-card entries, perhaps in short-track speed skating and Nordic skiing, but this has not been confirmed.

North Korea has participated in the Olympics before, but not in South Korea. It boycotted the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

North Korea to send team to Winter Olympic Games

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