Fri | Aug 17, 2018

Rivals North and South Korea agree to form first unified Olympic team

Published:Wednesday | January 17, 2018 | 10:07 AM
In this photo provided by South Korea Unification Ministry, South Korean Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung, right, and the head of North Korean delegation Jon Jong Su arrive for their meeting at Panmunjom in the Demilitarised Zone in Paju, South Korea, on January 17. – AP

SEOUL, South Korea (AP):
The rival Koreas agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and have their athletes parade together for the first time in 11 years during the opening ceremony of next month's Winter Olympics in South Korea, officials said.

The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee. But they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring co-operation during the Olympics following a year of heightened tension over the North's nuclear weapons program.

During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements including fielding a joint women's ice hockey team and marching together under a "unification flag" depicting their peninsula during the opening ceremony, Seoul's Unification Ministry said.

A joint statement distributed by the ministry said the North Korean Olympic delegation will travel to South Korea across their heavily fortified land border. It said the delegation will include a 230-member cheering group, a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team, and journalists, athletes and officials.

Ahead of the Pyeongchang Olympics, the Koreas will hold a joint cultural event at the North's scenic Diamond Mountain and have non-Olympic skiers train together at the North's Masik ski resort, according to the statement. It said the North also plans to send a 150-strong delegation to the Paralympics in March.

The agreements are highly symbolic and emotional. But it's still not clear how many North Korean athletes will come to Pyeongchang because none are currently qualified. South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the IOC.

A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year's Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation. The IOC said recently it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games. IOC officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the Pyeongchang organising committee in Switzerland on Saturday.

The IOC said in statement Wednesday that it has "taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources."

"There are many considerations with regard to the impact of these proposals on the other participating NOCs (national Olympic committees) and athletes. After having taken all this into consideration, the IOC will take its final decisions on Saturday in Lausanne," it said.

The two Koreas have previously sent joint teams to major international sports events twice, both in 1991. One event was the world table tennis championships in Chiba, Japan, and the other was soccer's World Youth Championship in Portugal.

During an era of detente in the 2000s, their athletes marched together during the opening and closing ceremonies of nine international sporting events, including the Olympics and Asian Games, but they failed to produce a joint team.

The current reconciliation mood began after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said in a New Year's speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the games. Critics have said Kim's overture is an attempt to use improved ties with South Korea to weaken US-led international sanctions on North Korea while buying time to perfect his nuclear weapons program.