BY HYUNG-JIN KIM
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea plans to send a 230-member cheering squad as part of its delegation to next month’s Winter Olympics in South Korea, officials said Wednesday, as South Korea’s president announced his support of a proposal for the rivals’ first unified Olympic team.
The two Koreas have been pressing ahead with a flurry of projects to cooperate in the Feb. 9-25 Olympics in Pyeongchang since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un abruptly said in a New Year’s speech that he was willing to send a delegation to the games.
Critics say Kim’s overture is an attempt to use improved ties with South Korea to weaken U.S.-led international sanctions on North Korea while buying time to perfect his nuclear weapons program. The moves nevertheless have provided a temporary thaw in the Koreas’ long-strained ties and fostered optimism that North Korea won’t launch any new provocations, at least during the Olympics.
The North’s participation in the Olympics “will serve as a chance to warm solidly frozen South-North ties,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said during a visit with South Korean Olympic athletes. “But if we march together (during the opening ceremony) or field a single team, I think that can be a further step in developing South-North relations.”
Moon spoke while officials from the two Koreas were meeting at a border village for the third time in about a week, with North Korea saying it will send a 230-member cheering squad to the Olympics as well as a delegation to the Pyeongchang Paralympics in March.
The officials also discussed fielding a joint women’s ice hockey team and having their athletes march under a “unification flag” depicting the Korean Peninsula, instead of their respective national flags, during the opening ceremony, according to Seoul’s Unification Ministry. It said North Korea proposed that its Olympic delegation travel to South Korea across the heavily fortified land border.
During earlier talks, the two Koreas agreed that the North will send a 140-member art troupe as part of its Olympic delegation, along with athletes, high-level officials, journalists and a taekwondo demonstration team.
The ideas floated by the two Koreas are highly symbolic and emotional. But South Korean media predicted only up to 10 North Korean athletes would end up being covered by an additional quota by the International Olympic Committee to compete in Pyeongchang because no North Koreans are currently qualified.
A pair of North Korean figure skaters qualified for this year’s Olympics, but North Korea missed a deadline to confirm their participation.
Some conservative critics say North Korea’s cheering and artistic squads are too big, and worry the North may try to steal the show at the Olympics to launch what they call a “peace offensive.”
North Korea also sent female cheering squads when it attended previous international sports events in South Korea. The groups, dubbed “beauty squads” by South Korean media, often received more attention than their athletes. Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, was a member of a 2005 squad.
The IOC said recently it has “kept the door open” for North Korea to take part in the games. IOC officials are to meet with sports and government officials from the two Koreas and officials from the Pyeongchang organizing committee in Switzerland on Saturday.
South Korea wants the IOC to allow the hockey team’s 23-player Olympic roster to be expanded so that several North Korean players can be added without removing any of the South Korean players.
If a joint hockey squad is realized, it would be the Koreas’ first unified Olympic team.
There are worries in South Korea that adding new players less than a month before the Olympics would weaken the team and deprive South Korean players of playing time.
“Adding somebody so close to the Olympics is a little bit dangerous just for team chemistry because the girls have been together for so long,” Sarah Murray, the South Korea women hockey team’s head coach, told reporters Tuesday, according to the Yonhap news agency. “I think there is damage to our players.”
Moon acknowledged the joint team isn’t likely to greatly boost the team’s power and may require lots of effort by the players.
“But if South and North Korea form one team and compete in the games, that will be an everlasting historic event, which I think will move our people and people around the world,” he said.
North Korea under Kim Jong Un has made sports, and especially success in international sporting events, a high priority. While it’s not a major winter sports competitor, North Korean athletes have set several weightlifting world records and its women hold a high profile on the world football scene.
When traveling abroad, however, North Korean athletes and coaches tend to cloister themselves away from outsiders when they are not competing or practicing. Defections are likely a concern, along with what their minders might deem to be ideological “contamination,” so they are kept under close scrutiny.
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