North Korea has asked South Korea to allow its delegation to cross the border via a land route in the western region for its participation in the PyeongChang Olympics, Seoul’s Ministry of Unification said Wednesday, as the two Koreas sat down to work out key agenda items for the North’s participation in the upcoming Winter Games.
It has also offered to send athletes to the PyeongChang Paralympics in March.
The news came during a vice-ministerial-level meeting at the Peace House located at the southern side of the border in the truce village of Panmunjeom. At a previous high-level meeting on Jan. 9, Pyongyang agreed to dispatch athletes, a high-level delegation, cheerleading squad, art troupe and more to the Olympics.
“(During the morning session of the meeting), North Korea informed us of a plan to send its Olympic Committee, athletes, cheerleading squad, taekwondo demonstrators, and press corps through the land route in the western region,” the Unification Ministry said Wednesday.
It added that the cheering squad would consist of 230 members.
The two Koreas have often used the cross-border land routes in the western and eastern parts of the peninsula for purposes including civilian exchanges. The western route links Paju, Gyeonggi Province, and the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial park -- which was shuttered in 2016 on suspicions it was funding the North’s nuclear weapons program.
The North proposed the use of the route through Panmunjeom for the visit of its 140-member art troupe after separate working-level talks Tuesday.
The North also said it would dispatch a delegation for not only the PyeongChang Olympics, but to the PyeongChang Paralympics as well, the South Korean government said.
A Unification Ministry official said that North Korean para-athletes were included in the delegation.
Although South Korea is likely to accept the offer, the official was cautious in confirming the response.
On issues linked to the North’s participation in the Winter Olympics, South Korea will further consult with the International Olympic Committee and Paralympic Committee in finalizing the matter, the official said. Both Koreas have reiterated that key details related to North’s participation in the Winter Games will be finalized at a meeting hosted by the IOC in Lausanne, Switzerland on Saturday.
As to whether North Korea will form a separate art troupe, spectator group or official delegation for the Paralympics, the official voiced skepticism, but said the idea calls for further discussions.
The Winter Paralympics are to take place from March 9 to 18, following the Feb. 9-25 Winter Olympics.
It would mark the first time for the North to compete in a Winter Paralympics, if the offer takes shape. A team of two North Korean athletes competed at the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympics, but never at a winter edition.
There is a high probability that North Korean skiers will compete at the Paralympics as reports of the team’s training sessions have been surfacing since last year. Ma Yoo-cheol and Kim Jung-hyun, who have registered to compete at the World Para Nordic Skiing World Cup in Oberried, Germany from Jan. 20-28, are likely candidates.
The IPC has echoed the IOC in its support of the North’s participation in the games and may grant wild-card spots to the athletes.
Wednesday’s talks were aimed at ironing out key issues, including the size of the North‘s Olympic delegation, transportation, accommodations, a joint appearance at the opening ceremony and a unified women’s ice hockey team.
South Korea’s three-member delegation led by Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung sat across from the North’s delegation led by Jon Jong-su, the vice chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, a state agency in charge of inter-Korean affairs, in the meeting that kicked-off at 10 a.m.
No South Korean reporter was allowed to cover the meeting, but Kim Kang-guk, a reporter at the North‘s Korean Central News Agency, attended the meeting as a delegate. Kim’s identity was largely unknown until Seoul’s Unification Ministry confirmed his position Wednesday.
The meeting was sandwiched between Tuesday’s talks on the North’s art troupe performance and Saturday’s separate gathering hosted by the International Olympic Committee.
Prior to the meeting, Chun expressed hope for the PyeongChang Games to be staged peacefully and to serve as a platform for bringing lasting peace to the Korean Peninsula.
A meeting hosted by the IOC at its headquarters in Lausanne will start at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday, or 5:30 p.m. in Seoul. A preparatory meeting will take place on Friday ahead of the main talks.
Whether the IPC officials will join the meeting or hold separate talks has yet to be announced.
Do Jong-hwan, culture and sports minister; Lee Hee-beom, head of PyeongChang’s Olympic organizing committee; Lee Kee-heung, president of the Korean Sport & Olympic Committee; and Ryu Seung-min, an IOC member, will represent the South in Switzerland. Kim Il-guk, North Korea‘s sports minister and head of its national Olympic committee, will leave for Lausanne on Thursday. Chang Ung, the North‘s IOC representative is also scheduled to head to Switzerland on the same day.
The South Korean government is carefully mapping out the North’s route to South Korea and overall plans of its stay to avoid violations of international sanctions imposed on the North Korean regime.
South Korea’s unilateral sanctions ban any vessel that has sailed to North Korea within the past 12 months from entering its waters, which rules out sea travel.
The US has also blacklisted the North‘s state-run airline and several ranking individuals as well. This could cause complications with the North’s choice of high-ranking delegation to the Olympics.
By Jung Min-kyung (email@example.com