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North Korea agrees to send athletes to South Korea Olympics

The breakthrough came Tuesday after the first high-level talks between North and South Korea in more than two years.
Image: People watch the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games PR booth on Jan. 5, 2018 in Seoul, South Korea.
North Korea accepted a proposal to hold talks with South Korea on Jan. 9 ahead of the Winter Olympics in February.Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea will send a delegation of officials and athletes to next month's Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, it was announced Tuesday after the first high-level talks between the countries in more than two years.

The two nations also agreed to hold military talks aimed at reducing animosity along their tense border and to "actively cooperate" in the Games, which open on Feb. 9 in PyeongChang some 50 miles from the boundary.

The sensitive discussions, held in Panmunjom, in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), were closed to outside observers.

“We have high expectations that the Olympics turn out to be a peace festival with special guests from the North," said South Korea’s unification minister, Cho Myoung-gyon.

His North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, added that he was optimistic about the talks as long as their “innocent intention and cooperation are united.”

In the past, talks have not gone smoothly.

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Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a think tank in Seoul, said previous summits were plagued by posturing and “nitpicking.”

“It’s clear that the North is focused on the atmospherics and the PR aspects of these talks this time,” she said. “The big question will be what actions North Korea shows after the Winter Olympics. How will Kim Jong Un prove he is serious about inter-Korean relations?”

During the latest talks, North Korea brought up sending a large entourage — including a high-level delegation, a performing arts group, athletes, cheerleading teams, media and others — to the Games, said South Korean Deputy Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung.

The South raised other possible areas of cooperation, such as reuniting families separated by the Korean War in 1950-53 and ways to ease military tensions, Chun added.

Image: North Korean skaters Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim
North Korean skaters Tae Ok Ryom and Ju Sik Kim qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Joosep Martinson / ISU via Getty Images

The discussions came afer the U.S. and South Korea on Thursday announced the suspension of military exercises during the Games.

"When the ancient Greeks used to hold the Olympics, they held a truce," said Moon Chung-in, a special adviser on foreign affairs and national security to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. "We are living in a civilized world. It is the logical choice."

With the Games only weeks away, the participation of North Korean athletes also requires agreement from the International Olympic Committee in Geneva because North Korea missed a key deadline for registration.

The Associated Press, citing Japanese media, reported Sunday that a delegation from North Korea was en route to Geneva. The IOC declined to confirm the visit to NBC News but said it was considering allowing the North Koreans to participate.

Two North Korean figure skaters have qualified for the Games, and one issue that must be addressed during the negotiations is how they would travel to PyeongChang and where they would stay. A majority of South Koreans support helping to cover the expenses of the North Korean delegation, according to a poll taken last Friday and reported by South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

Related: N. Korea’s proposed talks don’t mean Kim will give up nukes, experts say

"For the South Korean president, he's staking his political future on inter-Korean reconciliation, and he wants to try to broker U.S.-North Korea talks," said Kim of the Korean Peninsula Future Forum.

For Kim Jong Un, securing participaton in Games is a chance to convince the world that his nation is not a dangerous rogue state, she said. The Olympics creates "an opportunity, an international platform, to raise its profile and its standing in the world," she added.

Image: North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un
North Korea's leader Kim Jong UnKCNA / Reuters file

However, the risk that the renewed dialogue will be undermined by actions seen as provocative by either party remains high, even before a thaw.

"The sooner talks with Americans get going at a high level, the better," said John Delury, an associate professor of East Asian studies at Yonsei University's Graduate School of International Studies.

North Korea hasn’t engaged in negotiations over its nuclear program since the collapse of the "six-party" talks in 2009 involving North and South Korea, China, the U.S., Russia and Japan.

Those talks were aimed at getting North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program, but Pyongyang pulled out after facing international criticism for testing a missile.