Inter-Korean talks lift chill over Winter Olympics

Xi calls Moon over progress made at recent talks, as North's plan to attend boosts Games

SEOUL • Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday welcomed recent progress in inter-Korean talks during a telephone call with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae In, the South's Blue House said in a statement.

At Tuesday's talks, North Korea said it would attend the Winter Olympics in the South next month, and both sides agreed to resolve problems through dialogue and revive military consultations to avoid accidental conflict.

During the 30-minute call, Mr Xi said he supported Mr Moon's stance that the advancement of inter-Korean ties and denuclearisation of the peninsula should "go in parallel", Mr Moon's office said.

"The two leaders agreed to strengthen strategic communication and cooperation," the statement said.

It added that the two leaders hoped the latest dialogue effort would lead to a peaceful resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and the establishment of peace on the Korean peninsula, beyond next month's Olympics.

In Beijing, the official China Daily cited Mr Xi as telling Mr Moon that China wanted to work with South Korea to "jointly maintain regional peace and stability".

News of North Korea's desire to attend the Olympics has also been a confidence booster for organisers, easing fears over security and ticket sales.

News of North Korea's desire to attend the Olympics has also been a confidence booster for organisers, easing fears over security and ticket sales. The upcoming Games had been rocked by a drugs ban on Russia's team and concerns over potential disruption by the nuclear-armed North.

The upcoming Games had been rocked by a drugs ban on Russia's team and concerns over potential disruption by the nuclear-armed North.

France, Germany and Austria had all voiced fears about competing in Pyeongchang during the stand-off with North Korea, which lies just 80km away from the Olympic site.

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

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.

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

According to reports, the North Koreans 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 has been confirmed, we will have to be prepared that much more," said Mr Lee He Beom, head of the organising committee.

Mr Scott Snyder of the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank in the United States 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".

According to organisers, about 703,000 tickets for the Olympics had been sold as of Tuesday, nearly 60 per cent of the 1.18 million available. About half of all the tickets are normally sold in the last two months and during the Games, they said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2018, with the headline 'Inter-Korean talks lift chill over Winter Olympics'. Print Edition | Subscribe