Seoul: North Korean skiers and skaters were due to arrive in the South today to take part in the Pyeongchang Winter Games, setting the stage for a “peace Olympics” after a year of high tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.
Eight days before the opening ceremony, 10 North Korean skiers and skaters were to fly in on a chartered Asiana Airlines plane, in a rare direct flight between the two halves of the divided peninsula — for which a special exemption had to be sought from US sanctions.
The three cross-country skiers, three alpine skiers, two short-track speed skaters and two figure skaters will accompany a South Korean delegation who held joint ski training at the North’s Masikryong ski resort — a pet project of leader Kim Jong-Un — in the latest in a flurry of cross- border trips in the run-up to the Games.
The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are being held in a hitherto little-known part of the South, but have triggered a sudden apparent rapprochement between the two Koreas.
In the past year tensions reached fever pitch as Pyongyang carried out a series of weapons tests — including intercontinental ballistic missiles that brought the US mainland into range, and its most powerful nuclear blast to date — while Kim and US President Donald Trump traded personal insults and threats of war.
For months, the North ignored repeated entreaties from Seoul for it to take part in a “peace Olympics”, letting deadlines for registration slip by.
But in his New Year speech Kim finally expressed a willingness to send a delegation to Pyeongchang, triggering a rapid series of events.
The two Koreas held their first high-level talks for two years at Panmunjom, the truce village in the Demilitarized Zone that splits the peninsula.
Pyongyang agreed to send athletes, cheerleaders, officials and an art troupe to the South, and both sides decided to march together under a unification flag at the opening ceremony and form a joint women’s ice hockey team.
A dozen North Korean female ice hockey players arrived last week and have been training with their southern counterparts for what will be the first unified team in 27 years.