9 Jan 2018

North Korea to send officials, athletes to South Korea

7:10 pm on 9 January 2018

North Korea says it will send a delegation of high-ranking officials and athletes to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics after talks with South Korea today.

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North Korea and South Korea kicked off formal talks today. Photo: AFP / KCNA via KNS

North Korea said during rare talks with the South it would send the delegation - of high-ranking officials, athletes and a cheering squad - to the Winter Olympics in its neighbouring country next month, a senior South Korean official said.

Five senior officials from each side met at the three-storey Peace House on the South Korean side of the Panmunjom truce village from 10am local time.

The North Korean delegation walked over the border inside the joint security area (JSA) to the Peace House about 9.30am local time, a Unification Ministry official told reporters.

South Korea's vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung said Seoul also proposed inter-Korean military talks to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula and a reunion of family members in time for February's Lunar New Year holiday.

The South also proposed athletes from both nations march together at the Games' opening ceremony and participate in other joint activities during the Games, Chun said.

Some officials were even hoping the two Koreas may even march under a single flag at the Winter Games, which would be the first time in more than a decade the two Koreas united under one flag at a sporting event opening.

North Korea's head for inter-Korean dialogue earlier said he expected the talks would go well.

"Today, North and South Korea will engage in talks in a serious and sincere stance," said Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, told reporters before entering the talks venue on the inter-Korean border.

"They will go well."

Just before the delegation drove into the demilitarised zone, some 20 South Koreans were seen waving a banner reading: "We wish the success of the high-ranking inter-Korean talks".

One man was spotted waving a flag with a unified Korean peninsula.

Cameras and microphones are usually placed in the room to ensure that officials from both sides can monitor the talks.

It marked the first formal talks in more than two years for the two nations.

Regardless of its narrow, primarily sporting agenda, the meeting was closely watched by world leaders eager for any sign of a reduction in tensions on the Korean peninsula amid rising fears over North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions.

'A good thing'

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea as a legacy of the 1950-1953 Korean War, initially responded coolly to the idea of inter-Korean meetings.

The US State Department had said Pyongyang "might be trying to drive a wedge" between Washington and Seoul and weaken a US-led campaign to force North Korea to give up its development of nuclear-tipped missiles capable of hitting the United States.

US President Donald Trump spent much of the past year deriding negotiations as useless and lobbing insults at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but recently Trump called the new talks "a good thing" and said they had been prompted by his "firm, strong" stance.

Trump has said he would like to see talks go beyond the Olympics and added: "At the appropriate time, we'll get involved."

A spokeswoman for the US State Department, Katina Adams, did not respond directly when asked about suggestions from some South Korean officials that the two Koreas could march under a single flag at the Olympic opening ceremony and even compete as a single nation in some events, but said:

"We are in close contact with the Republic of Korea about our unified response to North Korea, including the need to maintain pressure to achieve a denuclearised Korean Peninsula.

"Diplomatic options remain viable and open and the United States remains committed to finding a peaceful path to denuclearising the Korean Peninsula."

At the same time, Adams said Washington remained "clear-eyed about (North Korea's) track record when it comes to negotiations".

"Time will tell if this is a genuine gesture."

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reiterated last week that any future talks between the US and North Korea must be aimed at denuclearisation and warned that diplomatic efforts would be backed by a strong military option if necessary.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis and Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera spoke by phone on Monday and discussed "the importance of maximizing pressure" on North Korea to abandon its nuclear and missile programs, the Pentagon said in a statement.

South Korea and the United States have agreed to delay joint military exercises until after the Olympics in a bid to reduce tensions and possibly create room for diplomacy.

The talks come after North Korea's Mr Kim used his New Year's Day speech to announce he was open to sending a delegation to the Olympics as well as reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula, while vowing to never give up his nuclear weapons program.

North Korea's delegation will be led by Ri Son Gwon, chairman of the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland. Committee vice chairman Jon Song Su and Hwang Chung Song, a director, will join Mr Ri.

Mr Ri, the committee chairman who was promoted to his current position in June 2016, is a seasoned negotiator for inter-Korean talks although his previous experience has mostly been military-related due to his career in the armed forces.

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