Athletes from South and North Korea march together with a flag bearing the image of the Korean peninsula at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Photo: AFP / Eric Feferberg

North and South Korea sat down for their third round of inter-Korean talks in Panmunjeom on Wednesday for discussions on the size, make-up and logistics of the North’s sporting delegation to the upcoming Winter Olympics, to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.

But while the series of talks – Wednesday saw the third edition in less than two weeks – have been lauded by everyone from US President Donald Trump on down, the first significant criticism of the developments came from an unusual source: the Canadian coach of the South Korean women’s ice-hockey team.

The two delegations met for working-level talks in the “Peace House” on the southern side of the Joint Security Area compound in Panmunjeom in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The delegates, vice-ministerial-level officials, discussed the size, make-up, logistical arrangements and costs of the North Korean delegation.

According to a joint statement released after the talks ended late on Wednesday evening, the two nations agreed to field a joint women’s ice hockey team. Also, athletes from both Koreas will march on in the opening ceremony under a single flag.

In addition to athletes – only two North Korean figure skaters have qualified for Pyeongchang, but it is understood that wild-card invitations will be issued to other players – and coaching officials, the delegation will include a 230-member cheering squad.  A female cheering squad, the so-called “Army of Beauties”  has wowed South Koreans in previous trips to the South.

The two sides also agreed that North Korea would dispatch a 30-strong taekwondo squad to the Games, although taekwondo, a Korea-originated combat sport, is not part of the Winter Olympics. The Northern taekwondo team will not compete with South Korean taekwondo fighters, but will perform demonstrations alongside them.

The head of the North Korean delegation, Jon Jong-su, talks with his South Korean counterpart Chun Hae-sung during their meeting in Panmunjeom on January 17, 2018. Photo: Yonhap via Reuters

The two sides also agreed to hold some cultural and training events prior to the Games in North Korea. And North Korea agreed to send a 150-member delegation of athletes and cheerleaders to the Winter Paralympics in March.

There are various complications. Because of international sanctions, South Korea may face difficulties paying the North Koreans’ expenses. Seoul has also hinted that it might temporarily lift individual sanctions against high-level officials who might join the North Korean delegation. Moreover, South Korea prohibits North Koreans from landing by sea, meaning that a land route through the DMZ on the western side of the peninsula, close to Panmunjeom, will be reopened for the North Koreans to reach the Games.

The route was previously used by South Korean workers at an industrial park near the North Korean city of Kaesong, just north of the DMZ. The joint industrial park, which deployed South Korean capital and management together with North Korean labor, was closed by Seoul in 2016 amid inter-Korean tensions.

Hockey controversy

The news about the joint women’s ice hockey team may not be well received.

Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, in outspoken comments on Tuesday that might have been too sensitive for a Korean coach to make, Sarah Murray, coach of the South Korean Women’s Ice Hockey Team, argued forcefully against the last-minute inclusion of Northern players on her team.

South Korean Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan and Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon had suggested that as the game is played in short shifts, it would not be difficult to accommodate extra players. The proposal was made public last Friday; Murray, who had been at a US training camp with her squad, said she was only made aware of it on Sunday.

“I think there is damage to our players,” Murray said, according to Yonhap newswire. “It’s hard because the players have earned their spots and they think they deserve to go to the Olympics. Then you have people being added later. It definitely affects our players.”

Murray said she was “kind of shocked this happened so close to the Olympics” – the Games will run from February 9-25. “Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry,” she told Yonhap. “That makes me a little nervous.”

A South Korean fan even filed a petition against the joint-team idea with the National Human Rights Commission, on the grounds that the plan infringed upon the South Korean players’ right to play in the Olympics.

How the joint team will be composed in the short time before the Olympics being is open to question. South Korea will reportedly discuss the various developments agreed on Wednesday with the International Olympic Committee on Saturday.

The political direction is clear. Earlier on Wednesday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has been a keen proponent of North Korean participation in Pyeongchang, reportedly said, in a meeting with South Korean athletes, that  a unified team would “…provide a much better chance to develop the South-North Korea relationship than North Korea’s simple participation would.”

Hopes and worries

In other developments, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced on Tuesday at an informal meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York that he would attend the Winter Olympiad’s opening ceremony.

“We need to build on these small signs of hope, and expand diplomatic efforts to achieve the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in the context of regional security,” he said, according to agencies. “I welcome the reopening of inter-Korean communication channels, especially military-to-military.”

But while inter-Korean warmth was being discussed in the DMZ and in New York, in the Canadian city of Vancouver on Tuesday a multinational conference of foreign ministers talked of maintaining pressure on North Korea.

“Let it be clear we will not allow North Korea to drive a wedge through our resolve and solidarity,” said US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in televised remarks.

His comment was a clear reference to fears that the North Korean charm offensive that was unleashed with Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s Day speech might be aimed at leveraging South Korea and the United States apart.

“North Korea continues to advance nuclear and missile programs even as we speak,” added Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono. “In short, it is not time to ease pressure or to reward North Korea.”

The two were speaking at a conference of allies who had supported South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, in addition to select special invitees, including Japan. The conference explored ways to put further financial pressure on Pyongyang, including possible maritime interdiction operations of North Korean shipping in waters near the peninsula.

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