North Korea to join Winter Olympics in South as tensions ease in rare talks

North and South Korea have taken steps towards reducing their bitter animosity during rare talks, as the North agreed to send a delegation to next month's Winter Olympics in the South and reopen a military hotline.

The meeting, the first of its kind in about two years, was arranged after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made an abrupt push for improved ties with the South following a year of elevated tensions with the outside world over his expanding nuclear and missile programmes.

Critics say he may be trying to divide Seoul and Washington in a bid to weaken international pressure and sanctions on the North.

During the talks, the North Korean delegation said it would send an Olympic delegation, including officials, athletes, cheerleaders, journalists and others, South Korean vice unification minister Chun Hae-sung told reporters at the border village of Panmunjom, the venue of the talks.

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North Korea is weak in winter sports and a pair of figure skaters, Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, earlier became the only North Korean athletes to qualify for next month's Pyeongchang Games before the North missed a confirmation deadline.

The International Olympic Committee said it has "kept the door open" for North Korea to take part in the games.

Mr Chun, one of five South Korean negotiators, said the South proposed that Pyongyang send a big delegation and march with South Korean athletes during the February 9-25 Games' opening and closing ceremonies.

He said Seoul also suggested resuming temporary reunions of families separated by war and offered military talks designed to reduce animosities in frontline areas.

South Korea also stressed the need to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, Mr Chun said.

North Korea responded by saying the two Koreas must try to promote peace and reconciliation through dialogue, he said.

The two sides' chief delegates are meeting to discuss the wording of a joint statement, the media reports said.

The countries have a long history of failing to follow through with rapprochement accords.

In 2015, negotiators met for nearly 40 hours before announcing a deal to pull back from a military stand-off caused by land mine blasts that maimed two South Korean soldiers.

But animosities flared again several months later after the North's fourth nuclear test.

The meeting's venue, Panmunjom, is the only place on the tense border where North and South Korean soldiers are just yards away from each other.

A North Korean soldier in November defected to the South across Panmunjom amid a hail of bullets fired by his comrades. He was hit five times but survived.

Today's meeting began in an amicable atmosphere, with chief North Korean delegate Ri Son Gwon saying he hoped the talks would give "a new year's first gift - precious results to the Korean nation".

His South Korean counterpart, unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon, said he also hoped they would come up with a "good gift" for people in both Koreas.

Later today, Mr Chun said North Korea told the South Korean delegation that it had restored a military hotline with the South, in the second reopening of a suspended inter-Korean communication channel in about a week.

All major inter-Korean communication channels had been shut down amid animosities over the North's nuclear programme in recent years, but Pyongyang reopened one of the channels last week as signs emerged of improving ties.

- AP

KEYWORDS: North Korea

 

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