South and North Korea agreed Wednesday to field a joint women's ice hockey team for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and march together under a "unified Korea" flag at the opening ceremony.
North Korea is expected to send a delegation of at least 400 to the Feb. 9-25 games in the South after the two sides discussed details of the North's participation in the Olympics.
The sweeping agreement marked a major breakthrough after years of frosty ties between the two countries and last year's heightened tensions over the North's nuclear and missile provocations.
|This photo, provided by Seoul's unification ministry on Jan. 17, 2018, shows working-level talks between the two Koreas on the North's participation in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. (Yonhap)|
If the joint hockey team is approved at this week's International Olympic committee (IOC) meeting, it will be the first time that the Koreas will have formed a single team at the Olympic Games.
"We are well aware of the public's concerns and interest. But we also think that it is very meaningful that the two Koreas show unity through a joint march and a unified team," Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung, the South's chief delegate to the working-level talks, told a press briefing after the meeting at the border truce village of Panmunjom.
"We believe that the move will help promote peace and improve inter-Korean ties," he said, adding that the single team will be pursued in a way that does not damage South Korean players.
The third inter-Korean talks in a week came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un extended a rare offer of rapprochement to Seoul in his New Year's Day speech, hinting at the North's willingness to participate in the first Winter Olympics hosted by the South.
Last Tuesday, the two sides held their first formal talks in two years, in which the North agreed to dispatch a delegation of athletes, high-ranking officials, art performers and others.
A joint statement issued after Wednesday's talks showed that the North will send a 230-member cheering squad and a 30-member taekwondo demonstration team to the South.
The North said in a working-level meeting Monday that it will send a 140-member art troupe to perform in the South.
The North's delegation will use a western land route, marking the reopening of the cross-border road for the first time since February 2016, when a joint industrial complex in the North Korean border city of Kaesong was shut down.
The two sides also agreed to hold a joint cultural event at Mount Kumgang in North Korea before the opening of the Olympics and to conduct joint training for skiers at Masikryong Ski Resort on the North's east coast.
As for the Paralympics scheduled for March 9-18, the North promised to send a 150-member delegation including athletes and cheerleaders.
Moon hopes that better inter-Korean relations will pave the way for the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and for broader dialogue between the United States and the North.
The president, who took office in May last year, vowed to seek both dialogue and sanctions in handling North Korea. He has said that putting sanctions and pressure on the North is aimed at prodding Pyongyang into dialogue.
The talks coincided with a meeting of foreign ministers of 20 countries in Canada where they voiced support for inter-Korean dialogue, expressing hope that it will pave the way for easing tensions.
They also stressed the importance of diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue of the North's nuclear weapons development and agreed to take tougher sanctions on Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.
The South's government is carefully reviewing ways to greet the North's Olympic delegation in a way that does not violate multilayered sanctions on the communist regime.
Under U.N. sanctions, the South can't offer cash directly to the North when it supports delegates' accommodation expenses.
Sea travel could be in violation of South Korea's unilateral sanctions that ban the entry to South Korea of any vessel that has sailed to North Korea within the past 12 months.
It is highly likely that North Koreans would travel to the South by land. The North asked the South on Monday to allow its art troupe to cross the border via Panmunjom for concerts during the Olympics.
Another sticking point is the North's possible inclusion in its delegation of high-ranking officials blacklisted by U.N. sanctions or by Seoul's unilateral punitive actions.
Before the vice minister left for the truce village, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon told Chun to consider the government's pursuit of a breakthrough in efforts to improve inter-Korean ties, which could be conducive to denuclearization.
"The government is pushing to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue and an improvement in inter-Korean ties in tandem. We are enforcing sanctions and pressure on Pyongyang, along with efforts to seek dialogue and cooperation," Chun said.
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