The rival Koreas agreed Wednesday to form their first unified Olympic team and have their athletes parade together for the first time in 11 years during the opening ceremony of next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, officials said.
The agreements still require approval from the International Olympic Committee. But they are the most prominent steps toward rapprochement achieved by the Koreas since they recently began exploring cooperation during the Olympics following a year of heightened tension over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
During their third day of talks at the border in about a week, senior officials reached a package of agreements including fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team and marching together under a blue and white “unification flag” depicting their peninsula in the opening ceremony, Seoul’s Unification Ministry said.
The plan for a unified team has prompted some criticism in the South because of concerns that South Korean athletes who made the team might be bumped off to make room for the North's players.
Even so, Seoul appears to be firmly behind the idea.
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As the negotiators met Wednesday, South Korea's president said fielding a joint ice hockey team would be a historic event that would move the hearts of people around the world.
Officials from the two countries will take the plan to the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland this weekend for approval.
The agreements are highly symbolic and emotional. But it’s still not clear how many North Korean athletes will come to PyeongChang because none are currently qualified. South Korean media have predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes will end up being covered by an additional quota from the IOC.
A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year’s Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation. The IOC said recently it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the games.
“We have taken note of a number of interesting proposals from different sources," an IOC spokesperson said on Wednesday. "We are sure that the two Korean delegations will present their ideas and proposals at the meeting on Saturday in Lausanne. This will then enable the IOC to carefully evaluate the consequences and the potential impact on the Olympic Games and the Olympic competitions.”
North Korea will send a 550-member delegation to PyeongChang, including 230 cheerleaders, 140 artists and 30 Taekwondo players for a demonstration, a joint statement released by Seoul’s unification ministry said.
The two Koreas marched together behind a unification flag at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in 2000, 2004 and 2006.
North Korea boycotted the previous Olympics held in South Korea, the Summer Olympics in Seoul in 1988.
There has been some speculation about the attendance of high-ranking officials from the North. Kim Jong Un sent three of his top lieutenants to the South for the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
The Koreas are still officially at war after the Korean War ended more than six decades ago in an armistice but not a peace treaty. The two neighbors are separated by a heavily guarded border, just 34 miles north of Seoul, known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
Tensions mounted between the North and the U.S. last year as Pyongyang tested more missiles and nuclear weapons. The U.S. responded by strengthening sanctions against the North, increasing military shows of force and enhancing regional defenses.