Clouds lift as North Korea boosts Pyeongchang Olympics

Venues for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics including the Gangneung Ice Arena (left), Gangneung Oval (centre) and Gangneung Hockey Centre (bottom right).
Venues for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics including the Gangneung Ice Arena (left), Gangneung Oval (centre) and Gangneung Hockey Centre (bottom right).PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - Pyeongchang Winter Olympics organisers are entering their final preparations with renewed confidence after neighbouring North Korea ended months of speculation by confirming its attendance, immediately easing fears over security and ticket sales.

With one month to go, the outlook is suddenly much brighter for the "Peace Olympics", which had been rocked by the drugs ban on Russia's team and concerns over potential disruption by the nuclear-armed North.

North Korea, which boycotted the 1988 Seoul Summer Games, this week agreed to attend its first Olympics in the South during talks which defused soaring tensions over its nuclear programme and missile tests.

France, Germany and Austria had all voiced fears about competing in Pyeongchang during the stand-off with North Korea, which lies just 80 kilometres (50 miles) away from the Olympic site across a heavily fortified border.

"Security concerns over the North's nuclear threats during the Pyeongchang Olympics have evaporated at a stroke," Park Sung Bae, a sports industry expert from South Korea's Hanyang University, told AFP.

"No one would now think the North could lob nuclear bombs over the heads of its own athletes."

'Army of beauties'.

The North Korean delegation is expected to run into the hundreds, even though only two North Korean athletes have so far qualified to compete, figure skaters Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik.

But Olympic officials have said they will consider offering wildcards to athletes from the country. Cross-country skiers and speed skaters are understood to be among those who could benefit.

Ryom and Kim won the bronze medal at last year's Asian Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan.

North Korea has grabbed only one silver and one bronze medal in its eight previous Olympic Winter Games appearances, but none from figure skating, reported Yonhap news agency.

According to reports, the North Koreans - including its "army of beauties" female cheering squad - could be accommodated on a cruise ship off the nearby coastal city of Sokcho.

"There has been plenty of speculation on whether North Korea would participate or not, but now that it's been confirmed, we'll have to be prepared that much more," said Lee He Beom, head of the organising committee, according to Yonhap news agency.

"Accommodation for athletes and other officials is all ready. Since the cheering and performing squads will also make their way, we'll have to make our preparations accordingly." .

Missing in action

The news of North Korea's involvement is highly welcome for Pyeongchang after Russia's team was barred en masse by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) last month over a wide-ranging doping conspiracy.

Pyeongchang will also be missing top ice hockey stars, as the National Hockey League (NHL) is snubbing the event after the International Olympic Committee refused to pay costs such as travel and insurance.

According to organisers, about 703,000 Olympics had been sold as of Jan 9, nearly 60 per cent of the 1.18 million available.

About half of all Olympics tickets are normally sold in the last two months and during the Games, they say.

The torch for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games will tour Seoul later this week as one of its stops towards the venue of the country's first Winter Olympics, the Seoul city government said on Thursday (Jan 11).

It will mark the first time in nearly 30 years for the capital city to hold a torch relay event since the 1988 Summer Olympics held in Seoul.

The 2018 Winter Games will kick off in Pyeongchang, which lies 180 km east of Seoul in Gangwon Province, on Feb 9.

The Games are being held in a remote, previously low-key corner of South Korea, far from the traditional winter sports markets of Europe and North America.

But Scott Snyder, of the Council on Foreign Relations think tank in the US, said North Korea's participation "will be an enormously reassuring signal to athletes, officials, and spectators who might otherwise have hesitated to come to South Korea due to rising inter-Korean tensions".

Although Russia's team is banned, "clean" Russian athletes who pass strict protocols will be allowed to compete under a neutral flag. Russia's Olympic chief, Alexander Zhukov, has said about 200 athletes could compete in this way.