North Korea agreed to hold two working-level meetings this week -- on Monday and Wednesday -- after the South offered Friday to hold a formal meeting on the North’s participation in next month’s PyeongChang Olympics. The series of meetings started with inter-Korean high-level talks on Jan. 9, where North Korea said it would send athletes, high-ranking officials, a cheering squad, a performance team, press corps and national Olympic committee representatives to the Winter Games.
Wednesday’s meeting, slated to begin at 10 a.m. at the truce village of Panmunjeom, is forecast to be a stepping stone for the International Olympic Committee-hosted meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Saturday, which delegates from both sides and IOC officials are to attend. Both Koreas have reiterated that several details on the North’s participation will be finalized at the Lausanne meeting.
For Wednesday, North Korea has proposed to send a three-member delegation headed by Jon Jong-su, who is the vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, the North Korean state agency that handles inter-Korean affairs. The South’s chief delegate is Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.
“(At Wednesday’s meeting), we will focus on discussing practical matters related to the North’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics,” Chun told the press at the launch of a government team supporting the activities of the North Koreans at the Olympics.
About 20 officials from the ministries of unification and culture, along with the PyeongChang Organizing Committee, will systemically assist North Korean groups participating in the Winter Games, the Unification Ministry said.
The vice-ministerial-level talks are likely to focus on mapping out plans for participation of North Korean athletes at PyeongChang, a possible joint women’s hockey team and a joint march under a unified Korean flag. The talks on Monday yielded results: Pyongyang is to send the 140-member Samjiyon orchestra to perform in Seoul and Gangneung, Gangwon Province.
As South Korea has guaranteed the safety and convenience of the art troupe’s visit here, similar assurances are likely to be made regarding the athletes and other visiting North Koreans. Accommodation arrangements for the visitors must be discussed as well.
The Moon Jae-in administration has hoped for a joint women’s hockey team and athletes of the respective nations to march together at the opening ceremony since it took office in May. North Korea has shown signs it is positively considering both options, and both issues are likely to be discussed Wednesday.
Seoul’s sports minister said Monday that if the two sides agreed on a joint entrance, athletes would march under the “Korean Unification” flag -- a white flag with a blue shape of the Korean Peninsula in the center. The remark was met with divided opinions from the political sphere here.
Specific talks on the route the North Koreans will take to cross the border are also likely to take place. The North on Monday requested the use of an overland route via Panmunjeom for its art troupe and asked the South to provide vehicles and necessary support.
The government needs to consult with the United Nations Command for such an arrangement near the border.
Other inter-Korean issues such as the reunion of families separated by the 1950-1953 Korean War and cross-border military talks may be raised at Wednesday’s discussions, the South’s Ministry of Unification official said. The official added that although negotiations on North Korea’s participation in the Olympics are likely to be prioritized due to the approaching Winter Games, other matters could be discussed if opportunities arise.
The ministry official added that the South Korean government would not return a group of North Korean defectors, which Pyongyang has been demanding as a precondition for the revival of cross-border reunions. Pyongyang has been demanding the return of 12 North Korean workers who defected to the South in 2016, on claims they were kidnapped by authorities here.
The South rejects the North’s notion, saying they defected of their own free will.
By Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com