SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea will send a delegation of officials and athletes to the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea next month, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said after the first high-level talks between the countries in more than two years.
Deputy Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung, who was part of the South Korean team at the summit in the border town of Panmunjom, said the government of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accepted South Korea’s request that the North send a delegation of athletes to the games, which open Feb. 9 in PyeongChang.
The sensitive discussions were closed to outside observers.
In opening remarks before the meeting, Cho Myoung Gyon, South Korea’s unification minister, referenced the massive protests that led to the ouster of former President Park Geun-hye, saying: “We have experienced power of the people and we have [an] understanding that the inter-Korean relations should be headed to establish reconciliation and peace.”
Recent frigid weather and heavy snow will make the winter games that much better, Cho said, allowing them to aid in that process.
“We have high expectations that the Olympics turn out to be a peace festival with special guests from the North,” he said.
Cho’s North Korean counterpart, Ri Son Gwon, added that he was optimistic about the talks as long as their “innocent intention and cooperation are united.”
The talks lasted a little over an hour, South Korean spokesman Chun Hae-sung said afterwards, with delegates promising more in-depth analysis in the future.
Additional meetings were planned for the afternoon. Chun said both sides hoped to “solve all inter-Korean issues through dialogue.”
For the North, Chun said, this included sending a sizable entourage — a high-level delegation, a performing arts group, athletes, cheerleading teams, media and others — to the upcoming games.
More substantive dialogue over tensions on the Korean Peninsula and Kim Jong Un’s nuclear program will take time but analysts say the talks are an important starting point.
“Seoul would want to focus on the logistics of North Korea’s participation in the Olympics, because the North’s participation is a critical moment for South Korea,” said Duyeon Kim, a visiting senior research fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a think tank in Seoul.
“It wants to use the North’s participation as a turning point, or an ‘off-ramp’ to continued in-depth discussions on how to improve inter-Korean relations, and how to revive inter-Korean cooperation projects and exchanges that have been dead for a long time now.”
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Chun, the South Korean delegate, said Seoul brought up the issue of families separated by the Korean War in 1950-53 and ways to ease military tensions but gave no detailes.
Only hours after the U.S. and South Korea decided last Thursday to suspend military exercises during the Olympics, North Korea notified the South via fax that it agreed to join talks starting Tuesday.
“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 Olympics only weeks away, the participation of North Korean athletes also requires agreement from the International Olympic Committee in Geneva, as 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 this when contacted by NBC News, although it did say 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.
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More than half of South Koreans surveyed support helping to cover the expenses of the North Korean delegation, according to a poll taken last Friday and reported in Yonhap News.
Ahead of the Olympics, Seoul and Pyongyang are likely to keep the focus on Olympic issues, before touching on more sensitive topics like economic cooperation projects or military relations.
“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.
But for Pyongyang, the Olympics transcend relations with the South.
“For the North it would be an opportunity, an international platform, to raise its profile and its standing in the world,” Kim added.
Kim Jong Un’s goal in allowing his country to take part in the games is to try to convince the world that North Korea is not a dangerous, rogue state, she said.
The North Korean leader wants to show that his country is “a peace-loving, normal power and, ‘by the way our nuclear weapons are only for peace — or only for self-defensive purposes,'” Kim added.
However, the risk that the renewed dialogue will be undermined by actions seen as “provocative” by either party remains high, even before a thaw could lead to talks with other countries, such as the United States or China.
“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.
South Korean presidential adviser Moon Chung-in said that the negotiations were an opportunity, and that it was up to Pyongyang to take advantage. “Self-restraint will send a very good message to Washington and Seoul,” he said.
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.