Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

North Korea signs on to Winter Olympics, agrees to military talks with South

South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon, left, poses with head of North Korean delegation Ri Son Gwon during their meeting at the Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone in Paju, South Korea, on Jan. 9, 2018.

Korea Pool via AP

There will almost certainly be more North Korean cheerleaders than athletes, but the 2018 Winter Olympics will include a delegation from the country that has provoked global anger through its nuclear-development program.

Only two North Koreans have formally qualified for the Pyeongchang games in South Korea, a pair of figure skaters who trained in Montreal. But in rare talks on the border between the two countries Tuesday, North Korea said it would send them to South Korea to compete, along with a high-level delegation, an art troupe, cheerleaders and a Taekwondo demonstration team, an ensemble that suggests Pyongyang wants to show the world a sunny new face.

The breakthrough follows warm new year's comments toward South Korea by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the postponement of U.S.-led military drills in the region, long a sticking point for Pyongyang.

Story continues below advertisement

Read also: War with North Korea: How might it break out, and what would happen if it did?

"We have high expectations that the Olympics turn out to be a peace festival with special guests from the North," Cho Myoung-gyon, South Korea's unification minister, said in his opening remarks on Tuesday.

Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte trained North Korean figure-skaters Kim Ju-sik and Ryom Tae-ok in Montreal. The two atheltes have qualified for the Olympics and are on track to be part of a small North Korean contingent at the Games.

In 11 hours of meetings, the two sides agreed to hold military talks in hopes of reducing tensions, and said they would resume a broader dialogue between the two countries, including a meeting of upper-level leadership, South Korea's Yonhap news reported. South Korean officials also discussed the possibility of temporarily easing some sanctions to allow for the Olympic detente.

The agreements were praised by China, whose foreign ministry said it hopes "talks will mark a good beginning in improving relations," and by Canada, where foreign ministers will gather next week to discuss North Korea. "Canada believes that a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis is essential and possible," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement.

The U.S. Department of State said it welcomed the Tuesday meeting between the Koreas, but will "continue the campaign of maximum pressure on North Korea toward the goal of complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula."

South Korea pushed for denuclearization talks, but that suggestion provoked a backlash from North Korea, which said it had issued a "strong complaint" over the matter.

"All our weapons, including atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs and ballistic missiles, are only aimed at the United States, not our brethren, nor China and Russia," said Ri Son-gwon, the chair of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland who led the North Korean delegation.

Story continues below advertisement

"This is not a matter between North and South Korea, and to bring up this issue would cause negative consequences and risks turning all of today's good achievement into nothing," he said. That tension undermined a new image North Korea was eager to put forward at the talks, after dominating headlines for its tests of deadly new weapons and foul-mouthed feuding with U.S. President Donald Trump.

Dressed in black Western suits, the smiling North Korean side entered a room at Panmunjom, the border village where the Korean armistice was signed in 1953, and made an unusual request: Could the meetings Tuesday be broadcast, live, in both countries?

North Korea maintains rigid control of its own media; the South Korean side declined.

But the request suggested something new out of Pyongyang, the capital of a nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom now engaged in its own version of a charm offensive.

Mr. Ri, the North Korean official, even offered a joke about the cold temperatures outside: "It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that inter-Korean relations have been frozen more than the natural weather."

"The negotiations strategy for Kim Jong-un and North Korea has been provocation, peace, provocation. We're now at that peace stage," said Jasper Kim, director of the Center for Conflict Management at Ewha Womans University's Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.

Story continues below advertisement

The Olympics, and the world attention they attract, offer a prominent stage for the North Koreans to make a pitch "that they're a peaceful nation and that all these provocations are actually a function of a country trying to defend the homeland, no different from any other country. That's its narrative," Jasper Kim said.

But, he said, "people aren't buying it," and North Korean concessions are unlikely to come without strings attached.

"They have every intent to break the international campaign of economic sanctions and political isolation. So they want to get as much material benefit as possible in this process," said Tong Zhao, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy.

Part of that includes an effort to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, in hopes of eroding the international consensus that has cleared the path for increasingly harsh economic measures against North Korea.

North Korea, for its part, appears ready to offer concessions after a two-year campaign of heavy testing that proved its ability to detonate a hydrogen weapon and fire an intercontinental ballistic missile that appears capable of reaching deep into the United States.

"They have obtained rudimentary nuclear strategic deterrence," Mr. Zhao said.

"That makes them capable of exercising some self-restraint. The most likely self-restraint that North Korea can offer is to suspend ICBM tests," he said.

Pyongyang's list of demands, in exchange, is likely to include resumption of work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a jointly managed factory zone.

In that sense, North Korea's Olympics attendance marks "a historic opportunity, a turning point, on the way to resolving North Korea's nuclear tensions," said Wang Sheng, who studies North Korea at Liaoning University in northeastern China.

If the United States and South Korea resume military exercises after the Olympics, for example, the danger is that Pyongyang sees it as a betrayal rather than a continuation of a longstanding status quo. The "Olympics is a great chance" to improve relations, Prof. Wang said.

"All sides should see this event as an impetus. If they fail to make good on it and get things done, nuclear tensions will grow far more complicated in the future."

With a report from Alexandra Li

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.