South, North Korea talk about Olympics

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South, North Korea talk about Olympics


South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, left, shakes hands with Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which handles inter-Korean relations for the North Korean government, Tuesday as they begin inter-Korean talks in the Peace House, a South Korea-controlled building in the truce village of Panmunjom. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Pyongyang proposed sending a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics composed of athletes, cheerleaders, journalists, high-level government officials and taekwondo performers, Seoul’s Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung said Tuesday near the inter-Korean border.

Chun’s remarks came in a press briefing after the two Koreas wrapped up the first part of a high-level meeting between the two countries. The meeting itself was the first high-level talks between Seoul and Pyongyang since December 2015, after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said last week he was willing to send a North Korean delegation to the Winter Games and could “urgently” meet with the South to discuss the issue.

The first session began at 10 a.m. and ended at 11:05 a.m. at the Peace House, a South Korea-controlled building in the truce village of Panmunjom, which straddles the border.

At least five follow-up meetings took place from 11:30 a.m. but didn’t end by press time Tuesday. The talks are monitored by authorities from both countries, making it possible for Kim or South Korean President Moon Jae-in to intervene in real time.

During the morning session, Chun said South Korea reiterated an earlier proposal, which Pyongyang ignored last July, that the two countries hold military talks to defuse regional tension and discuss a reunion of families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War in time for the upcoming Lunar New Year’s holiday, which falls between Feb. 15 and 17.

South Korean government officials also urged the North to stop raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula and quickly resume negotiations over its denuclearization, to which Pyongyang delegates “didn’t make any reaction and just listened,” according to Chun.

On North Korea’s Olympics participation, Seoul suggested the two countries’ delegations walk side-by-side during the opening ceremony on Feb. 9 and form a combined cheering squad, adding South Korea hoped the North Korean delegation be “as large as possible.”

Kim Jong-un did not personally send any comments via the North Korean interlocutors, Chun said.

Whom the regime had in mind when it said it wants to send “high-level government officials” to the South for the Olympics wasn’t explained. Aside from that group, North Korean officials said they wanted to include members of the DPRK Olympic Committee in its delegation to the Games.

The high-level meeting continued throughout the afternoon. An additional media briefing on the talks was not given as of press time. A senior Unification Ministry official said the two Koreas were ironing out their differences for a joint statement after exchanging each other’s drafts.

In the morning, North Korea told the South it restored a military hotline between the two Koreas along the west coast, which had been suspended since February 2016. Chun did not explain Pyongyang’s intention behind the move Tuesday, but said Seoul agreed to restart “normal operations” on the line from today.

South Korea’s five-member delegation for the inter-Korean talks, led by Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, includes Vice Unification Minister Chun; Roh Tae-kang, second vice minister of culture, sports and tourism; Ahn Moo-hyun, deputy director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office; and Kim Ki-hong, vice president of Games planning for the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympics and Paralympic Winter Games.

North Korea’s five-member delegation, led by Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), which handles inter-Korean relations within the North Korean government, includes Jon Jong-su, vice chairman of the committee; Hwang Chung-song a director at the committee; Won Kil-u, vice minister of physical culture and sports; and Ri Kyong-sik, a member of the DPRK Olympic Committee.

“I wouldn’t be exaggerating to say North-South relations are [currently] more frozen than the weather,” Ri said Tuesday in opening remarks. “I arrived at this meeting hoping that the North-South governments pull off a successful meeting with sincerity and faithfulness, so that we can gift our whole nation, which is watching this high-level meeting with so much expectation, with the precious outcome.”

In response, South Korea’s chief delegate, Unification Minister Cho, referred to the proverb, “The start is half,” saying, “The meeting has begun after a long rupture of South-North ties, but really, the first step is half the way. In that sense, I hope we start the meeting with willingness and perseverance.”

Cho continued, “At the same time, this is contrary [to what I just said], but there’s also a saying that goes, ‘Can one’s hunger be satisfied with the first spoonful of food?’ Taking that into consideration, I hope we don’t rush and unknot [our issues] one at a time with perseverance.”

At one point, Ri suggested they open their meeting to the press, citing the public’s “keen interest” in the inter-Korean talks. Doing so would prove how much the North is making a “serious effort,” he said.

But Cho politely refused, suggesting they stick to the customary practice of keeping the high-level meeting private because they had “a lot to talk about” after the long period of no dialogue.

Talks on North Korea’s possible participation in the Winter Games came as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Monday it would extend its registration deadline for North Korean athletes in the PyeongChang Olympics, though without explaining by how much.

The IOC said in a statement that it would talk with all concerned parties about the North’s participation, adding that its mission was to ensure the participation of all qualified athletes, beyond all political tensions and divisions.

The only North Korean athletes who qualified for the Olympics are the figure skating pair Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, but they failed to register in time last October and the spot was given to Japan. One possible option for the IOC would be to give a wildcard to North Korea.

The thawing of tensions between the two Koreas began on Jan. 1 when North Korean leader Kim said in an unusually conciliatory New Year’s address he was willing to send a delegation to the PyeongChang Olympics and suggested the North and South “urgently meet.” Kim did not specify what the delegation would look like.

It was the first time Pyongyang responded to Seoul’s repeated invitations to join the Games, set to kick off on Feb. 9 in South Korea’s northeastern counties of Pyeongchang and Jeongseon and city of Gangneung, in Gangwon.

It was also the first time since President Moon took office last May that North Korea showed any interest in bilateral dialogue.

On Jan. 2, Seoul picked up Kim’s cue and suggested they meet yesterday near the heavily fortified border separating the two countries for a high-level meeting. The next day, North Korea’s inter-Korean relations chief Ri said in a televised statement that Kim “welcomed” Seoul’s positive reaction to his New Year’s address and ordered the reopening of the Panmunjom hotline to discuss the Olympics.

The Panmunjom channel had been closed for 23 months after Pyongyang severed all communication in February 2016 when the administration of President Park Geun-hye shut down the jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex following Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January and subsequent long-range rocket launch.

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