In a massive breakthrough, North Korea will send athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
In talks held at the border in the truce village of Panmunjom, North Korean negotiators accepted South Korea’s request to send a large delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korean media reports.
The North will send a cheering squad and a performance-art troupe, The New York Times reports.
It will be the first time North Korea has taken part in the Winter Olympics in eight years.
The agreement came after a North Korean delegation travelled to the demilitarised zone for talks.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea also had a hotline to “intervene and provide instructions”.
The talks come after the North’s leader Kim Jong-un indicated in his New Year’s speech that Pyongyang was willing to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics.
Seoul responded with an offer of a high-level dialogue, and last week the hotline between the neighbours was restored after being suspended for almost two years.
Moments before Seoul’s five-member delegation left for the talks at the village, Unification Minister Cho Myung-Gyun said the two sides would focus on the North’s participation in the Pyeongchang Games but the agenda would also include ways to thaw frosty ties.
“Today, we will discuss North Korea’s participation in the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics and the issue of improving inter-Korean relations as well,” Cho, who led the South’s delegation, told journalists.
He said relations between the two Koreas had been in limbo for a long time. “We will do our best to ensure that the Pyeongchang Olympics and Paralympics will take place as a peace festival and that this meeting will serve as the first step for improving South-North ties,” he added.
South Korean officials still need to determine the travel route and accommodation for the North Korean Olympic delegation.
They are also expected to propose they march together behind a “unified Korea” flag during the opening and closing ceremony of the Olympics.
Seoul has been keen to proclaim the Games in Pyeongchang, just 80 kilometres south of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) separating the two countries, as a “peace Olympics” in the wake of missile and nuclear tests by the North — but it needs Pyongyang to attend to make the description meaningful.
The size and membership of the North Korean delegation and their accommodation — widely expected to be paid for by Seoul — will also be discussed.
The group may stay on a cruise ship in Sokcho, about an hour’s drive from the Olympic venue — which would enable their movements to be closely monitored and controlled.
South Korean reports have suggested the North could send a high-level delegation to the Games including Kim’s younger sister Yo-Jong, who is a senior member of the ruling Workers’ Party.
Cho, the top South Korean official in charge of relations with the North, is a veteran negotiator in inter-Korean affairs.
He has participated in talks with North Korea since the 1990s, including their last summit in 2007.
Pyongyang’s chief delegate Ri Son-Gwon has a similar role as head of the Committee for Peaceful Reunification of Korea.
Ri has mostly taken part in military talks with the South and is known for angrily storming out of one meeting within minutes, denying Pyongyang’s role in the 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship.
As well as the Olympics, the two sides could bring up their own priority issues, which analysts say will be much more challenging.
South Korea wants to discuss the resumption of family reunions but Pyongyang snubbed previous offers, saying it will not consider further reunions unless several of its citizens are returned by the South.
The North will probably want to discuss a permanent end to large-scale annual military drills between Seoul and Washington.
The United States and South Korea agreed last week to delay the Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises until after the Games, apparently to help ease nerves.
US President Donald Trump said at the weekend he hoped the rare talks between the two Koreas would go “beyond the Olympics” and that Washington could join the process at a later stage.
A State Department adviser says although the US views Tuesday’s talks between North and South Korea as a good start, it’s too early to know if they’ll be meaningful beyond the Olympics preparations.
Brian Hook, a chief adviser to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, told reporters in a conference call that sanctions on Pyongyang would continue until the US reached its goal of “the complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” Hook said.
US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley reiterated that the North must stop nuclear tests before talks with Washington can begin.