LAUSANNE (AFP) - North Korea will send 22 athletes to next month's Winter Games in South Korea, the International Olympic Committee said on Saturday (Jan 20), approving a landmark deal between two nations still officially at war.
South Korea had hoped that the Games, which begin in Pyeongchang on Feb 9, could help ease the crisis on the peninsula that surged to new heights in recent months over the North's nuclear and missile and programme.
In a surprise New Year's announcement, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un indicated he was open to sending a delegation to Pyeongchang.
North and South then reached a deal on a set of momentous compromises, including having delegations from both countries march together at the opening ceremony and the formation of a unified women's hockey team.
But Seoul and Pyongyang still needed approval from the IOC, as the pact required the suspension of some basic Olympic rules.
IOC president Thomas Bach gave that approval on Saturday, following closed-door talks with the leaders of the Olympic committees from both Koreas, Pyeongchang 2018 organisers, and senior government officials from the two countries.
"Let us not forget that such an agreement would have seemed impossible only a few weeks ago," Mr Bach said, in an apparent reference to the feverish tension triggered last year by the North's repeated missile tests.
The final deal cleared 22 North Korean athletes to compete in three sports and a total of five disciplines.
These are figure skating, short-track speed skating, cross-country skiing and Alpine skiing, as well as hockey.
In approving the joint hockey team, the IOC overruled concerns raised by some hockey federations over fairness.
At the opening ceremony, the joint delegation "will be led into the Olympic stadium by the Korean unification flag" carried together by athlete from an each country, the IOC said.
A special unity uniform will be created for the event.
As no North Korean athlete had technically qualified for Pyeongchang, Saturday's announcement required extending qualification deadlines in the sports concerned.
Bach acknowledged that "exceptional decisions" were required to get the deal done and thanked the skiing, skating and ice hockey governing bodies for their "enthusiastic participation".
"Today marks a milestone on a long journey," Bach said.
"The Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang are hopefully opening the door to a brighter future on the Korean peninsula, and inviting the world to join in a celebration of hope," he added.
North Korea has taken part in seven of the past 12 Winter Olympics, most recently in Vancouver 2010.
But the North boycotted the 1988 Games in Seoul, so its presence in Pyeongchang - just 80km south of the demilitarised zone that divides the Koreas - has been seed as a significant, if not stunning, diplomatic coup.
North and South Korea remain technically at war since the Korean war ended with armistice, not a peace treaty, in 1953.
An IOC spokesperson confirmed that the North Korean athletes will stay in the Olympic village, quashing speculation that they may have chosen to sleep on a boat to avoid residing on Southern soil.
Regardless of where its athletes sleep, the North is unlikely to pose a significant threat in competition, as the country has only won two medals in the history of the Winter Games, in 1964 and 1992, both for speedskating.
North Korea will also send 24 officials and 21 media representatives to Pyeongchang, all whom will receive IOC accreditation, Bach said.
The North has also said it will send 550-member delegation including cheerleaders, performers and other cultural envoys.
To assist with preparations, North Korea has informed Seoul it will send a delegation on Sunday (Jan 21) to prepare cultural performances during the Winter Olympics, the South's unification minister said, a day after Pyongyang abruptly cancelled the visit.
The North had initially planned to send a seven-member advance team headed by the leader of a popular all-female Western-style band for a two-day visit from Saturday to inspect venues for proposed performances in Seoul and the eastern city of Gangneung.
Hyon Song-Wol, reportedly an ex-girlfriend of leader Kim Jong-Un, would be the first North Korean official to visit the South in four years.
But Pyongyang said late Friday it had suspended the plan, giving no reason.
"The North informed us that it will send the arts delegation on Sunday", a day later than initially planned, the ministry said in a statement on Saturday.
Critics in the South have said a unified team would disrupt the side and deprive some Southern squad members of the chance to play on the Olympic stage.
The conservative opposition Liberty Korea Party has strongly objected to the agreement, arguing the North is seeking to exploit the South's Olympics for its own propaganda.
"The Pyeongchang Olympics is becoming like a Pyongyang Olympics", its leader Hong Jun-Pyo said on Friday.
A Realmeter poll released on Thursday showed only 40.5 per cent of South Koreans supported the joint march under a unification flag.
A larger share - 49.4 per cent - were in favour of the neighbours holding their own national flags.