North and South Korea agreed Wednesday to march their athletes together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics next month and to field a joint women’s hockey team. It was the most dramatic gesture of reconciliation between them in a decade.
South Korea, host of the games, has said it hopes such a partnership in sports could contribute to a political thaw after years of high tensions. It came even as the prospect of war over the North’s nuclear and missile tests has grown especially acute.
The games will begin Feb. 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the women’s hockey squad will be the first combined Korean team for the Olympics, and the first unified team since their athletes played together for an international table-tennis championship and a youth soccer tournament in 1991.
The two countries’ delegations will march at the opening ceremony behind a “unified Korea” flag that shows an undivided Korean Peninsula, negotiators from both sides said in a joint news release after talks at the border village of Panmunjom.
The North will send 230 supporters to the games, and negotiators agreed that supporters of both Koreas would root together for athletes from both countries.
The prospect of North and South Koreans cheering together offers a stunning contrast to the bombastic rhetoric of possible war from North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump of the United States, South Korea’s main ally.
Trump has threatened the North with “fire and fury like the world has never seen” should it put the security of Americans and their allies at risk. Kim has called Trump a lunatic.
The Olympics agreement could help President Moon Jae-in of South Korea, who has been pushing for dialogue and reconciliation with the North.
Few expect that the breakthrough will lead to a quick breakthrough in the decades-old standoff over the North’s nuclear weapons program. But it provided a welcome reprieve for South Koreans who have grown both alarmed and weary over the tensions and talks of possible war in the peninsula.
The news was welcomed by top officials at the United Nations, where Secretary-General António Guterres has said he plans to attend the opening ceremonies. The president of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia, said on Twitter:
Heartened by reports that Koreans from DPRK & RoK will march together in @Olympics opening ceremony. #UNGA hopes @pyeongchang2018 will foster peace, development, tolerance & understanding on Korean Peninsula & in North-East Asia.
— UN GA President (@UN_PGA) January 17, 2018
The two countries also agreed Wednesday that their skiing teams would train together in the Masikryong ski resort in North Korea. The resort, a showpiece project of the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, was opened in 2013.
South Korean officials said Wednesday that the North’s delegation would include at least 550 people, including about 150 at the Paralympic Games in March. But the joint news statement said that the final number would be determined in Switzerland on Saturday, when the International Olympic Committee is to bring together North and South Korean officials. The plan is for the North’s athletes to enter the South over a land border Feb. 1.
So far, the only North Korean athletes to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games are a pairs figure skating team. North Korea missed an Oct. 31 deadline to accept invitations from South Korea and the IOC to join the games. But the international body has said it remains willing to consider wild-card entries for North Korean athletes.
A unified team of any kind at the Olympics would be a milestone for the Koreas, which have been bitter rivals in international sports as well as diplomacy and armed conflict, but which also have a history of trying to use sports as an avenue for reconciliation.
Moon proposed in June that the two Koreas form a unified team for the Pyeongchang Games, but the suggestion was not taken seriously until Kim used his New Year’s Day speech to propose dialogue with the South and to discuss his country’s participation in the Olympics.
That proposal led to a series of talks in Panmunjom between the two Korean governments. In an earlier round of negotiations, the North agreed to send a 140-member orchestra to play in the South during the Olympics.
The prospect of fostering inter-Korean reconciliation, through sports and other channels has strong appeal in South Korea, so much so that successive governments have tried to negotiate sending a unified team to the Olympics.
Such efforts have sometimes led to breakthroughs. In 2000, the year of the first inter-Korean summit meeting, the countries’ delegations marched together at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. They have marched together nine times, including in Athens in 2004, carrying a blue-and-white flag representing a united Korea, and at the 2006 Winter Olympics. The two Koreas last marched together in the Asian Winter Games of 2007.
But forming a joint Olympic team proved elusive. Past negotiations faltered over such details as whether a joint team would have an equal number of players from each country, who would choose the coaches and where the athletes would train.
South Korean athletes, who have far more resources and Olympic experience than their counterparts from the North, have balked in the past at the idea of sacrificing their hard-earned prospects for the sake of parity with North Korea in a united team. South Korean news outlets have reported that the South asked the International Olympic Committee to allow a unified hockey team to have an expanded roster, so that none of the South Korean players would have to bow out of the games.
South Korea first sought to use sports to ease military tensions with the North in the 1960s, proposing joint teams for international athletic events. But sports diplomacy has never led to a lasting political thaw on the Korean Peninsula, which has remained technically in a state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War was halted with a truce.
The two Koreas negotiated sharing some of the 1988 Seoul Olympics after South Korea won the right to play host to the games. But the talks collapsed and the North bombed a South Korean passenger jet in 1987 in an attempt to disrupt the games in the South.
Inter-Korean sports and other exchanges increased between 1998 and 2008, when the leaders of the South were pushing their so-called Sunshine Policy of seeking reconciliation and easing political tensions.
But that period of détente, which gained momentum with the historic inter-Korean summit in 2000, unraveled as conservatives took power in the South in 2008. They withdrew from projects like a joint factory park in the North Korean town of Kaesong in response to the North’s nuclear weapons pursuit and other acts the South considered provocative.