Figure skating duo may be icebreaker that thaws ties

North Korean figure skating duo Ryom Tae Ok (far left) and Kim Ju Sik competing in Germany last year. North Korea indicated it was willing to send the pair and a high-level delegation to the Winter Olympics.
North Korean figure skating duo Ryom Tae Ok (left) and Kim Ju Sik competing in Germany last year. North Korea indicated it was willing to send the pair and a high-level delegation to the Winter Olympics.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO • Two people were at the centre of the first formal inter-Korean talks in two years, but they were not even inside "Peace House" on the southern side of the border between the two countries.

They are Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik, the North Korean figure skating duo who, South Korea desperately hopes, will compete in the Winter Olympics next month.

Representatives from the two Koreas sat down at Panmunjom, the "truce village" in the middle of the Demilitarised Zone, at 10am (9am Singapore time) yesterday for their first talks in more than two years.

North Korea indicated that it was willing to send the athletes and a high-level delegation to the Winter Olympics starting on Feb 9 in Pyeongchang, just 65km south of the line that separates the two Koreas.

Ryom, who will turn 19 the week before the Games open, and Kim, 25, trained in Montreal under Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte last summer and competed in Germany and Finland last year.

They had qualified for the Games, but Pyongyang missed the Oct 30 deadline to register them.

However, the International Olympic Committee, which was in favour of yesterday's talks, has signalled that they would still be allowed to participate. Other athletes may also be permitted to attend.

For its part, South Korean President Moon Jae In's government is bending over backwards to make the Olympics - which it has dubbed the "Peace Games" - a success and to open a new era of engagement with the North.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who turned 34 on Monday, has taken great pride in his nuclear and missile progress over the past year.

He has proved impervious to United States and international sanctions, even as he has admitted that they are having an impact on North Korea's economy.

But now, he might see an opening to cause a different kind of trouble - by driving a wedge between Seoul, where the government wants to change North Korea's ways through engagement, and Washington, where US President Donald Trump urges "maximum pressure".

Mr Kim's New Year's Day address was notable for its conciliatory tone towards South Korea, wishing it well for the Winter Olympics and calling for the two Koreas to work together.

Seoul scored a remarkable victory in persuading the US to postpone the huge joint military drills that start at the beginning of March each year to until after the Winter Paralympics finish on March 18.

But Mr Moon would be prudent to keep his expectations low, said Ms Kim Duyeon, a fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum, a Seoul think-tank. "North Korea is always trying to drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington," she said.

South Korean conservatives are painting the Moon government as naive in thinking North Korea might be persuaded to change its ways. "Moon has talked about being 'in the driver's seat' in inter-Korean affairs. But it seems obvious who is leading whom by the nose," the Chosun Ilbo, South Korea's largest newspaper and an influential conservative voice, wrote in a sharply worded editorial.

"All he (Mr Kim) wants is to buy time so he can complete his nuclear arms development, and his strategy is to sow a rift among the allies."

WASHINGTON POST

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2018, with the headline 'Figure skating duo may be icebreaker that thaws ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe