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[PyeongChang 2018] North Korea to send athletes to Winter Games, but how many?

North Korea has agreed to send athletes to the 2018 Winter Olympics, but the question remains: How many are coming?

North Korean cheerleaders cheer for South Korean athletes at the 2003 Summer Universiade held at the Daegu World Cup Stadium in South Korea. (Yonhap)
North Korean cheerleaders cheer for South Korean athletes at the 2003 Summer Universiade held at the Daegu World Cup Stadium in South Korea. (Yonhap)

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said “a massive delegation totaling between 400-500 people” is expected to visit South Korea, during a meeting with companies sponsoring the PyeongChang Olympics. Earlier in the morning, the PyeongChang Organizing committee said the two Koreas are working out details of the visit, including the number of North Korean athletes.

“The North has just decided to compete in the games, so no meeting has been arranged (to discuss the number of North Korean athletes,” a committee official told The Korea Herald on Wednesday. “All details will be provided upon the International Olympic Committee’s decision on the size of the delegation,” the official said.

Only the figure skating duo, Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik, who placed 15th in last year’s World Championship, qualified to apply for the games but they missed the deadline to apply for a spot. However, the IOC is expected to grant their entry. Athletes in other sports, including skiing, may be granted wild card entries, but their number is unlikely to exceed 10, according to experts.

North Korea has earned only two medals in past Winter Games, which it has attended sporadically, starting in 1964. They include a silver medal in speed skating and a bronze medal in short-track speed skating in 1992. The last Olympic Games in which it participated was the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Besides the athletes, the North Korean Olympic delegation will include high-ranking officials, a taekwondo demonstration team and a cheering squad, according to a joint statement released after the first inter-Korean talks in more than 52 years.

A squad of 288 cheerleaders accompanied athletes to the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, while 303 and 124 were present at the 2003 Summer Universiade in Daegu and the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships in Incheon, respectively.

If they do come to the PyeongChang Games, it will be the first event in 13 years for the cheerleaders to attend in South Korea. They would also likely be joining the largest contingent to a sporting event -- a contingent that includes athletes, performing artists and other officials.

Both sides will continue to discuss whether a North Korean cheering squad will cheer alongside their South Korean counterparts as a single unit -- or separately.

The committee also has to decide where the North Korean delegation will stay during the Olympics, the committee said. It is not yet clear if South and North Korean athletes will jointly enter the Olympics stadium during the opening ceremony, holding a single Korean Peninsula flag, a symbol of easing tensions on the peninsula.

By Bak Se-hwan (