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S. Korea seeks N.K.'s participation in PyeongChang Olympics

2017/08/10 09:01

SEOUL, Aug. 10 (Yonhap) -- Three months after a deadly naval skirmish in June 2002, North Korea sent delegates to the Asian Games held in South Korea. Its female cheering squad mesmerized South Koreans. Animosity and politics gave way to the spirit of sports and a passion for reconciliation.

Six months ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics with rising tensions caused by the North's recent missile tests, South Koreans hold on to hopes of reviving the magic of sports diplomacy.

South Korea will host the Winter Games in PyeongChang, 180 kilometers east of Seoul, and two nearby cities from Feb. 9-25.

Putting out the slogan "Peace Olympics," the government is still eager to see the North's participation. Pyongyang has yet to confirm whether it will join the Games. But organizers said that any peace-loving country, including North Korea, has a duty to compete in the Olympic Games.

The government of President Moon Jae-in believes that the North's attendance could help improve a decadelong strained relationship under his two conservative predecessors.

"I again urge North Korea's decision. We will not rush nor be pessimistic, but will keep the doors open until the very last moment," Moon said at an event aimed at promoting the Winter Olympics on the 200-day countdown on July 24.

"The International Olympic Committee (IOC) opened the door for North Korea. And now North Korea's decision is all that is left," he added.

President Moon Jae-in (L) is presented with an enlarged version of his new business card listing him as an honorary ambassador for the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games by former South Korean Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na (R) in an event held in PyeongChang, located some 180 kilometers east of Seoul, on July 24, 2017. (Yonhap) President Moon Jae-in (L) is presented with an enlarged version of his new business card listing him as an honorary ambassador for the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games by former South Korean Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yu-na (R) in an event held in PyeongChang, located some 180 kilometers east of Seoul, on July 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

PyeongChang was one of the contested battlefields during the 1950-53 Korean War. The war ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, meaning the two Koreas remain technically at war.

Moon proposed in June that South and North Korea create a unified team for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. He made the offer at an opening ceremony for the World Taekwondo Championships, to which the North sent its demonstration team.

He also renewed his call for North Korea's participation when he unveiled his vision for bringing peace to the divided peninsula in Berlin in early July.

Exchanges in the sports fields had served as a catalyst in bringing a conciliatory mood to the Korean Peninsula though they did not always led to an improvement in bilateral ties.

The two Koreas fielded joint teams at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships and the 1991 FIFA World Youth Championship.

Athletes from the rival Koreas also marched under a unified Korean flag at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and Asian Games several times, including at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics and the 2002 Busan Asian Games.

Jointly carrying a unified Korean flag, Lee Kyu-sup (R), a South Korean male basketball player, and Ri Kum-suk (L), a North Korean female footballer, march together on Dec. 1, 2006, at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Qatar. (Yonhap) Jointly carrying a unified Korean flag, Lee Kyu-sup (R), a South Korean male basketball player, and Ri Kum-suk (L), a North Korean female footballer, march together on Dec. 1, 2006, at the opening ceremony of the Asian Games in Qatar. (Yonhap)

At the height of military tensions in 2002 when a naval skirmish occurred near the western sea border, North Korea sent its sports team and a cheering squad to the Busan Asian Games in South Korea.

North Korea did not take part in the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul, but it sent a delegation of three high-ranking officials -- Hwang Pyong-so, Choe Ryong-hae and the late Kim Yang-gon -- to the closing ceremony of the 2014 Asian Games held in the South.

Top military official Hwang is a close aide to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, making him the highest-ranking North Korean official to have visited the South in recent years.

But currently, it is hard to gauge whether Pyongyang would join the Winter Games amid heightened tensions sparked by North Korea's recent tests of two intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The international community is tightening its sanctions and pressure on the North over its provocative acts.

With the ICBM tests, Pyongyang effectively spurned Moon's July offer for inter-Korean military and separated family reunion talks.

North Korea's sole IOC member Chang Ung earlier told the Voice of America that it is doubtful that sports can improve frayed inter-Korean relations, adding that the idea is "naive at best and even hopeless at worst."

  

President Moon Jae-in and participants in an event to mark the 200-day countdown for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics stand in the shape of the year 2018 in this photo provided by the presidential office on July 24, 2017. (Yonhap) President Moon Jae-in and participants in an event to mark the 200-day countdown for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics stand in the shape of the year 2018 in this photo provided by the presidential office on July 24, 2017. (Yonhap)

Despite the tricky situation, Seoul remains firm in spurring sports exchanges with North Korea. South Koreans are also showing their support of the North's participation.

Nearly half of South Koreans believe that North Korea's presence at the PyeongChang Games will have a positive impact on the event, according to a survey commissioned by the country's sports ministry.

Those positive on the North's participation said that it could help provide a breakthrough for inter-Korean ties, the poll said.

It also corresponds with the Olympic spirit while helping generate more interest in the PyeongChang Olympics both at home and abroad.

"Other issues can be resolved when military tensions ease after reaching a peak," Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency on Aug. 7. "Such things repeatedly happened in inter-Korea relations, so we have to continue our efforts (for inter-Korean exchanges) until the end."

   sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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