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North Korea agrees to send athletes to Winter Olympics, South says

FILE PHOTO: The figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok, right, and Kim Ju-sik of North Korea during a competition in Oberstdorf, Germany, Sept. 28, 2017. (Jun Michael Park/Copyright 2018The New York Times)

SEOUL - North Korea has agreed to send a delegation of athletes and supporters to the Winter Olympics to be held in South Korea next month, announced Seoul's participants to the talks on Tuesday.

There was no immediate confirmation from the northern side, but the South's announcement was in line with recent North Korean signals that it was willing to send competitors to the games, which will open in PyeongChang on Feb. 9.

The talks are ongoing but the tentative agreement constitutes a rare moment of consensus between Kim Jong Un's regime, its estranged southern neighbor and the outside world.

"The North said that they will send a high-level delegation, including Olympic committee representatives, athletes, a cheering squad, an art performance group, spectators, Taekwondo demonstrators and press," Chun Hae-sung, vice minister of unification, told reporters at the Panmunjom truce village on the border between the two Koreas.

The talks took place in the "Peace House," a building on the southern side, which resulted in the unusual sight of a northern delegation stepping over the concrete curb that marks the border.

Representatives from the two Koreas sat down at Panmunjom at 10 a.m. Seoul time on Tuesday for their first talks in more than two years.

"I hope that the two Koreas can hold talks with a sincere and genuine attitude," Ri Son Kwon, the North's chief representative, said at the start of the talks, according to South Korean pool reports from inside the room.

"Just as water continues to flow below thick frozen ice, people's strong desires for these talks and improved inter-Korean relations cannot be stopped or frozen," he said.

In Tokyo, a top aide to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said that North Korea's agreement to participate signaled a "change in stance" and that this was welcome.

Still, North Korea's nuclear and missile programs continued to pose serious threats to Japan and the region, and Tokyo would continue to put pressure on Pyongyang to change its ways, chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

The advent of the talks has kindled hopes in the South Korean government that an agreement on sports can be a gateway into broader discussions about thorny issues such as the North's nuclear program.

"The two sides agreed to make PyeongChang Winter Olympics a turning point in the inter-Korean relations," Chun said. The south's delegates said that peace talks, including about denuclearization, were needed, but the North Koreans did not respond at all, he said.

In addition, the South asked for new reunions between families divided since the Korean War, which ended in 1953, and for military talks, Chun said. The North said it wanted to create a peaceful environment, Chun reported, and that these issues should be dealt with through inter-Korean contacts - a signal that Pyongyang wants Washington excluded.

The talks reconvened on Tuesday afternoon.

South Korea's government has been eager to see North Korean athletes participating in next month's Olympics, partly because it's been promoting the event as the "peace games" but also to minimize the chances of Pyongyang doing something provocative to ruin Seoul's party.

The South Korean government even convinced the United States to postpone annual military exercises, which usually take place from early March, until after the games finish on March 18 to decrease tensions.

In a surprising gesture toward the south, Kim used his New Year's address to wish South Korea success for the games to signal the North's willingness to send athletes.

"With regard to this matter, the authorities of the north and the south may meet together soon," Kim said. "Since we are compatriots of the same blood as South Koreans, it is natural for us to share their pleasure over the auspicious event and help them."

North Korea is hardly a winter Olympic powerhouse, but two of its figure skaters qualified for the games last year, although Pyongyang did not register them to compete.

However, the International Olympic Committee, which was in favor of Tuesday's talks, has signaled that they would still be allowed to participate. Other athletes may also be permitted to attend.

The IOC has been supporting the North Korean athletes with training, equipment and travel costs.

South Korea has said it will accommodate the North Koreans at PyeongChang and local reports Tuesday said that the government was considering suspending its sanctions against North Korea during the games to help facilitate participation.

Authors Information: Anna Fifield is The Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, focusing on Japan and the Koreas.

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