Pyongyang sets sights on PyeongChang

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Pyongyang sets sights on PyeongChang


Clockwise from left: figure skating pairs, short track speed skating and women’s ice hockey are the three events that North Korean athletes may compete in at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. [JOONGANG PHOTO]

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s announcement that he is willing to take the “measures needed” to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Games has raised hopes that North Korean athletes will be able to compete in the so-called peace Olympics. But as Pyongyang has already missed the registration deadline, it remains unclear if the team will actually be allowed to take part at all.

An official from the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games (Pocog) that asked not to be named admitted that the organizing committee had no idea whether North Korea will be allowed to participate. Despite the uncertainty, Lee Hee-beom, head of Pocog, said in his New Year’s address at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on Wednesday, “We’re making preparations in case North Korea sends its athletes, cheering squad and support staff. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has also said several times that it would support North Korea’s participation.”

But it’s unclear how the IOC could bring a North Korean team to the Olympics. The only event that North Korean athletes actually qualified for was figure skating pairs, but when they failed to register in time the berth was given to Japan.

A source from Pocog said the IOC may choose to grant North Korea the wild card spot in the figure skating pairs event. Wild card spots, also called Invitation Places, are normally given to countries that fail to qualify for a sport at the purview of the sport’s governing body. In this instance the IOC will have to work with the International Skating Union (ISU) in order to grant the spot to North Korea. A source close to this matter said, “Since North Korea didn’t even decide on whether they will send a delegation to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, nothing has been determined.”

Since South Korea failed to qualify for the figure skating pair event, another option is to create a unified Korea team. Gangwon Governor Choi Moon-soon originally proposed the idea during a meeting with Mun Ung, a vice-minister level official who headed the North Korean youth football team in Kunming, China, in December.

Choi’s proposal was made to have South Korean athletes compete in the men’s singles, women’s singles and ice dance event while the North Korean duo - Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik - compete in the pairs event.

The figure skating team medals are judged on the combined score in all four figure skating events. The qualified teams were determined based on the scores from seven ISU events including the Grand Prix, World Championship and Four Continents Figure Skating Championships. Only the countries with skaters qualified in three or more events were considered for the team event.

Based on the total scores, South Korea was ranked 11th, but as Spain, ranked ninth, only qualified for two of the events - men’s singles and ice dance - South Korea was given a berth. Although the team did not initially qualify for the pairs event, South Korea was also awarded a berth through the additional quota system.

Choi told CBS radio on Tuesday that since South Korea only qualified for three events and North Korea qualified for the other, it would be perfect for the two countries to compete as a North-South unified team in figure skating. However, the reality is much more complicated.

Even if the IOC and ISU decide to grant North Korea the wild card spot for pairs figure skating, there is no reason to think that this would extend to the team event. If a unified North-South team competes, this would take away South Korea’s figure skating pair’s chance to compete at the PyeongChang Games.

After finishing 15th at the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy, Kim Hyung-tae and Kim Su-yeon no longer compete as a pair. But South Korea’s other pair - Alex Kang-chan Kam and Kim Kyu-eun - are still active on the national team, recently competing at the second national team qualifying event for the Olympics.

Due to this, it is very likely that Kam and Kim will compete as the figure skating pair at the Olympics, unless a unified team is created.

Aside from the figure skating duo, two North Korean short track speed skaters - Kim Un-hyok and Choe Un-song - could be given wild card spots by the IOC. In short track, the spots are given based on the results from three of the four Audi ISU World Cup races, but since the two North Korean skaters didn’t compete in the third or fourth World Cup races, they are technically not qualified.

“The Olympic Games are about dialogue,” Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said in his New Year’s message on the IOC website. “They are a symbol of hope and peace. In our troubled times, they are the only event that brings the whole world together in peaceful competition. To ensure this for the Olympics Winter PyeongChang 2018, we keep monitoring the situation very closely.”

As Bach emphasized “peaceful competition” once again in his New Year’s message, there’s a possibility the IOC will seek to bypass the formal rules in order to include North Korea. In this case, the two speed skaters are likely to top the list of North Korean athletes that were relatively close to qualifying.

In June 2017, the government also floated the idea of creating a unified ice hockey team for the Winter Olympics. South Korea earned a berth at the Olympics as the host country, but North Korea didn’t qualify. The issue eventually faded away after the idea of a unified team was met with fierce protests from the South Korean players.

The possibility of North Korean athletes attending the Olympics has once again brought up the possibility that the two countries could enter together at the opening ceremony for the Games. The athletes have walked together at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2002 Busan Asian Games, 2006 Torino Olympics and 2007 Changchun Asian Winter Games.

But this year, the different size of the teams might be an issue. While South Korea will have about 150 athletes participating in the Olympics, North Korea is unlikely to have more than ten. As a result, the two countries walking together under the unification flag may not offer the powerful visual that organizers are hoping for.

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