By Hugh Finlay
North Korea has agreed to be part of the Winter Olympics taking place in South Korea, indicating that relations between North Korea and South Korea are greatly improving. The two countries also agreed that they would hold more talks about reducing tension along the border, and are planning to reopen the military hotline.
This is the first meeting between the countries in two years, and was arranged when the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made a sudden decision to improve ties with South Korea, after a year of increasing tensions with the US, over his plans to expand North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.
“All our state-of-the-art strategic weapons like atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and intercontinental ballistic rockets are completely targeting the United States. They are not targeting our compatriots” in the South, Ri, the North Korean representative said, at the border village (Panmunjom), where the talks took place.
Despite these comments from Ri, these agreements are seen as a positive move. The South Korean representative, Cho Myoung-gyon described the agreements as a “first step toward the development of South-North relations.”
Ri read out a joint statement following the agreements, which stated that the two Koreas have agreed to “actively cooperate” in the Olympics Games in order to “enhance the prestige of the Korean people.”
Ri said that North Korea would send a delegation of athletes, officials, journalists, and cheerleaders to the Feb. 9-25 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
He added that South Korea is to provide necessary services to the delegation from North Korea, and that North Korea and South Korea will hold more working-level discussions on Olympic cooperation.
“I see North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games will provide us with a chance to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula,” said Cho, the South Korean representative, who has the official title of Unification Minister in the South Korean government.
Heather Nauert, the U.S. State Department spokesperson, welcomed this meeting between the two Koreas. She said the talks were “aimed at ensuring a safe, secure and successful” Olympics. The U.S. is checking with the South Korean government, to make sure that North Korea’s participation in the Olympic Games, does not contravene the U.N. sanctions imposed on North Korea because of its nuclear program.
The participation of North Korea in these Winter Olympics will not affect the U.S. participation in the games, said Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a White House spokesperson. She added that the agreements between the two Koreas gives North Korea an opportunity to appreciate the value of increasing its ties with the rest of the world.
North Korea is not a major winter sports country, and the only qualifiers for the games in South Korea are two of its figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, before North Korea missed its confirmation deadline for the games. The International Olympic Committee said it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics.
In earlier times of inter-Korean agreements, athletes from North Korea and South Korea appeared together at international sports occasions like the Olympics and had a unified Korean team. The current government of South Korea under President Moon Jae-in wanted the two countries to take similar reconciliatory measures at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
The 1986 Asian Games, and the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul, were boycotted by North Korea, in the Cold War era.
In another important agreement, North Korea has said that it will have military talks with South Korea to reduce animosity on the border, and restore a military hotline communication channel with South Korea, according to Cho.
This restoration of the border hotline was the second such development in a week. All important inter-Korean communications were shut down because of the North’s nuclear program in the past few years. But North Korea has reopened a communication channel, as it became clear that relations between the countries were improving.
The South Korean representative, Cho, said that his country has also called for discussions at an early date to talk about denuclearization of the whole Korean Peninsula to bring further peace to this part of the world. Cho said that the two countries will continue to have high-level talks, but did not give a specific date for the meeting.
South Korean officials said they had also suggested the resuming of temporary reunions of Korean families separated by 1950’s war.
The venue for the meeting, Panmunjom, is a place on the border where North and South Korean soldiers are just meters away from one other. Recently a North Korean soldier defected across the border at Panmunjom to the South. Although he was hit by gunfire, he survived.
The U.S. President, Donald Trump expressed hope that the talks would be a progressive step towards peace. He said he was open to having talks with the North Korean leader, Kim. However U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Washington is not changing its conditions for talks with the North Koreans. She said that Kim would have to stop testing weapons for a “significant amount of time.”
In a New Year Day address, Kim said that he was happy to send an Olympic delegation to the Pyeongchang Games. The South Korean leader, Moon welcomed Kim’s declaration, and Moon proposed that the two leaders have talks at Panmunjom.