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North and South Korea meet again to discuss Winter Olympics

Posted January 14, 2018 8:13 p.m. EST

— North and South Korea are discussing fielding a joint ice hockey team in next month's Winter Olympics, a potential first for the two countries, which have never competed under one flag at the Games.

Baik Tae-hyun, a spokesman for South Korea's Unification Ministry, said Monday the two sides were in the process of coordinating the creation of an inter-Korean women's ice hockey team.

Baik's comments come as officials from Seoul and Pyongyang sat down for discussions Monday, the second such meeting in less than seven days.

The two sides, meeting at the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, are expected to hammer out details on how the secluded communist nation can take part in the Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, though no exact agenda has been disclosed.

Last week, officials from North and South Korea met face-to-face for the first time in two years, with the North agreeing to send a delegation to the Games -- the most significant thaw in relations between the neighboring states in years.

To date, only two North Korean athletes have qualified for the Games -- figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju sik. However, the country's National Olympic Committee did not meet an October 30 deadline to accept their spot.

There has been talk of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) granting an additional quota, or so-called wild card, for North Korean athletes.

In a statement last week, the IOC reiterated that it remains open to the North's participation. "Our mission is always to ensure the participation of all qualified athletes, beyond all political tensions and divisions. On this we have been working with all the stakeholders for quite some time," the statement said.

According to Japanese news agency Kyodo, North Korea's representative to the IOC, Chang Ung, told reporters at Beijing's international airport over the weekend that Seoul had proposed fielding a joint female hockey team. He did not disclose whether North Korea supported the idea.

Choi Moon-soon, the governor of Gangwon Province, where the Olympics are being hosted, discussed the idea of a joint hockey team in an interview with CNN after the first round of talks on Tuesday.

"I think if this goes well, it will create an opportunity to for North Korea and the US to sit down at the table of dialogue," said Choi.

Major milestone

A unified Korean team would be regarded as a major milestone in inter-Korean relations.

The two countries have competed under separate flags at major international multi-discipline sporting events since the end World War II and remain sporting rivals.

However, sports have also been used by both sides as a means of reconciliation. The two countries marched under the same flag at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Games in 2000 and South Korean spectators are known to support their northern compatriots. Notably, last year, the North Korean women's ice hockey team was cheered on by crowds when they competed in South Korea.

The idea of a joint team has been floated before, but the current round of talks appears to have provided an new impetus to the idea.

Last week's meetings, held on Tuesday at the border village of Panmunjom, lasted for nearly an entire working day, and ended with a handful significant developments, most notably the North's decision to send a delegation of athletes, a cheering squad, an art troupe, a visitors' group, a Taekwondo demonstration team and a press corps to the Games next month.

Pyongyang also agreed to hold talks to ease military tensions and South Korea said a military-to-military hotline was opened on the western Korean Peninsula, though North Korea rejected the claim that the hotline was opened as the result of the talks.

The talks were lauded by most of the international community, with the United States, China, Russia and Japan all issuing statements praising the dialogue.

After a year of saber rattling and weapons testing, analysts say the decision by Washington and Seoul to postpone annual military exercises and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's perceived offer of an olive branch provided fertile ground for diplomacy.

Many analysts see the talks as a good first step, as they allow the two sides to establish some sort of rapport, but believe Olympic participation itself is mostly symbolic. North Korea's still refuses to put its nuclear weapons on the table, and previous rounds of diplomacy have failed to bring about either denuclearization or a permanent peace treaty to formally end the Korean War (hostilities ended with a truce in 1953).

A piece in North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) accused accuse South Korea of using the Olympic Games talks to pave the way to negotiations on North Korea's weapons programs.

"This fact that South Korea is trying so hard to achieve our participation of the Winter games clearly reveals their wicked intent of leading us into giving up nuclear weapons," KCNA said. "South Korea should carefully consider how their ill-mannered behaviors can bring shameful results."

The article did promote the talks themselves as a positive development when it comes to inter-Korean relations. However, it castigated South Korean President Moon Jae-in for saying US President Donald Trump's hawkish stance on Pyongyang helped push both sides to negotiations.

"It is unbearable to look at South Korea's servile attitude of thanking Trump as if the results of inter-Korean talks happened because of their international sanctions and pressures," said the report. "We will work hard to improve North-South relationship but we will not sit by and tolerate foul actions that pour cold water on our effort."

Rodong Sinmun, a state-run newspaper, praised Kim Jong Un's efforts to bring about the intra-Korean talks, calling them a "brilliant" move in the effort to reunify the Korean Peninsula.