North Korea to join Olympics in South Korea as tensions ease

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The rival Koreas took steps toward reducing their bitter animosity during rare talks Tuesday, as North Korea agreed to send a delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, hold talks on reducing tension along their border and reopen a military hotline.

The meeting, the first of its kind in about two years, was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with South Korea following a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programs. Critics say Kim may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.

“I think we took an important first step toward the development of South-North relations,” chief South Korean delegate Cho Myoung-gyon said after the talks, according to media footage from the border village of Panmunjom, the venue.

Cho’s North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, read a joint statement in which the two Koreas agreed to “actively cooperate” in the Pyeongchang Olympics to “enhance the prestige of the Korean people.”

He said North Korea will send a delegation of officials, athletes, cheerleaders and journalists and South Korea will provide necessary services for the delegation.

“I believe that North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games will provide us with a chance to reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula,” said Cho, whose official title is unification minister.

During an earlier era of inter-Korean detente, athletes from the two Koreas paraded together at international sports events such as the Olympics and fielded a unified Korean team. The government of current South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants the two Koreas to agree to similar reconciliatory steps at the Feb. 9-25 Pyeongchang Games.

North Korea is weak in winter sports and a pair of figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, earlier became the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games before the North missed a confirmation deadline. The International Olympic Committee said Monday it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the games.

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