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(News Focus) Joint march at 2018 Winter Olympics long time coming for Koreas

2018/01/17 21:56

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- The joint Korean march to start the 2018 Winter Olympics, as agreed to by the two sides on Wednesday, has been a long time coming for two countries that have been technically at war for over six decades.

Officials from the two Koreas reached the agreement at the border village of Panmunjom during a working-level meeting. It followed high-level talks on Jan. 9, during which South Korea first proposed the joint march.

North Korea didn't immediately respond to the suggestion at the time, although it did offer to send a delegation of athletes and high-ranking officials, cheering and performing art squads, taekwondo demonstration teams and journalists.

In this file photo taken Feb. 12, 2006, athletes from South and North Koreas march in together at the opening ceremony of the Torino Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. South Korean speed skater Lee Bo-ra (front L) and North Korean figure skater Han Jong-in hold the Korean Unification Flag together. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken Feb. 12, 2006, athletes from South and North Koreas march in together at the opening ceremony of the Torino Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. South Korean speed skater Lee Bo-ra (front L) and North Korean figure skater Han Jong-in hold the Korean Unification Flag together. (Yonhap)

The two sides scheduled a separate meeting to discuss issues on North Korea's participation, including the joint march. And North Korea agreed to the South's earlier proposal, setting up a monumental occasion for the Feb. 9 opening ceremony at the first Winter Olympics to take place on Korean soil. This will be North Korea's first participation in an Olympics held in South Korea. It boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Games.

It will be the first joint Korean march into an opening ceremony at an international sports competition in 11 years and the 10th overall.

The first came at the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. Athletes from the Koreas also walked in together at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics and the 2006 Torino Winter Games.

There have been joint marches at two Asian Summer Games and two Asian Winter Games, along with a Summer Universiade and an East Asian Games. The last one came at the 2007 Asian Winter Games in Changchun, China.

Inter-Korean cooperation, sports-related or otherwise, had been virtually non-existent under the past two conservative regimes in Seoul. After liberal-minded President Moon Jae-in took office last May, South Korea adopted a more conciliatory stance, even amid North Korea's military provocations.

As early as June last year, South Korea raised the possibility of forming a joint Korean team at the PyeongChang Olympics. Both Moon and Sports Minister Do Jong-hwan called on North Korea to participate in the competition, saying its presence would help improve strained inter-Korean ties.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also supported South Korea's overtures, saying such ideas reflect the Olympic spirit of promoting peace and goodwill.

In this file photo taken Sept. 15, 2000, athletes from South and North Korea parade in together at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Sydney. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken Sept. 15, 2000, athletes from South and North Korea parade in together at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Sydney. (Yonhap)

PyeongChang's Olympic organizers say they've been making preparations for possible North Korean participation in the quadrennial event, using manuals from the 2002 Asian Games and the 2003 Universiade as references.

North Korea currently doesn't have any qualified athletes for PyeongChang but should have little problem sending at least a few to a select events in PyeongChang. The IOC has pledged its support to ensure North Korea's participation and may well grant the country some wild-card entries.

The North Korean pairs figure skating team of Ryom Tae-ok and Kim Ju-sik qualified for a spot last fall, but North Korea missed an Oct. 30 deadline to submit the tandem's entry. Should the IOC decide to open up extra spots for North Korean athletes, Ryom and Kim are prime candidates to receive one.

The Koreas also agreed to put together a joint women's hockey team at PyeongChang 2018, another major development from Wednesday, and the size of the roster will be determined in the coming days.

Officials from the two countries' national Olympic bodies will attend a meeting chaired by IOC President Thomas Bach on Saturday at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, where they will look to hammer out the details of North Korea's participation, including protocols such as flag, uniform and anthem.

At Wednesday's meeting, the Koreas agreed to march in under the Korean Unification Flag, which bears the image of the Korean Peninsula colored blue against a white background.

The Korean Unification Flag represented the two countries at all previous joint marches, but PyeongChang 2018 presents a unique problem because South Korea is the host. Raising the Unification Flag would make South Korea the first Olympic host not to bear its own flag at an opening ceremony.

North Korea has won a few medals at Summer Olympics over the years but has been invisible in previous Winter Games. It didn't send any athletes to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, four years ago and won no medals in the two competitions before that. North Korea has won just one silver and one bronze in its eight Winter Games appearances so far.

At Torino 2006, the only previous Winter Olympics where the Korean athletes marched in together, there were 44 South Koreans and 12 North Koreans on hand at the opening ceremony.

In PyeongChang, North Korea's cheering squad and other delegates could easily outnumber the country's athletes. During Wednesday's talks, North Korea offered to send a cheering team of 230.

At the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, 450 kilometers south of Seoul, North Korea had 362 athletes and 288 members of its cheering squad. At the Summer Universiade the following year in Daegu, 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, North Korea was represented by 221 athletes along with a cheering team of 306.

The last time North Korea took part in a multi-sport competition in the South was at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. It had 273 athletes then, with no cheering team, but it sent three high-ranking officials, including Choe Ryong-hae, now de facto No. 2 man in Pyongyang, to the closing ceremony.

In this file photo taken Oct. 1, 2002, members of a cheering squad from North Korea show support for their athletes at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. (Yonhap) In this file photo taken Oct. 1, 2002, members of a cheering squad from North Korea show support for their athletes at the 2002 Asian Games in Busan. (Yonhap)

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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