North Korea skaters seek Olympic bid, and diplomats cheer

The figure skaters Ryom Tae-ok (left) and Kim Ju-sik of North Korea train ahead of a competition in Oberstdorf, Germany, on Sept 27, 2017. The pair finished 15th at the 2017 world championships and are seeking to become the first North Koreans to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONGMAN OBERSTDORF, Germany (NYTimes)- The next effort to defuse the nuclear brinksmanship over North Korea's missile and bomb testing may come, not from diplomats, but from a pair of North Korean figure skaters who perform to music by the Beatles.

An obscure competition on Thursday and Friday here in Bavaria has gained geopolitical urgency as the pairs team of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik seek to become the first North Korean athletes to qualify for the 2018 Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

"We're aware there is a lot of interest," Kim Hyon Son, who coaches the pair, said after a training session on Wednesday, speaking briefly through an interpreter.

Despite the nuclear tests, missile launches and other saber-rattling threats, North Korea has signalled recently that it would consider participating in the Games. Its four-person skating delegation here appears somewhat guarded but approachable and friendly.

And no one would be more relieved by a North Korean triumph of sequins and Salchows this week than the International Olympic Committee and South Korean officials. They have stated adamantly and repeatedly a desire to have North Korea, one of the world's most isolated countries, compete in what is being promoted as the Games of Peace.

While the Olympics have been tainted by staggering costs and endemic corruption, they still strive for the ideal that sport can bring people together even as governments remain hostile and apart.

At the United Nations last week, Moon Jae In, the president of South Korea, called North Korea's aggressive behaviour "extremely deplorable". But he has promoted diplomacy with the North and opposes military action. Moon struck a cautiously hopeful tone at a ceremony to unveil the design of the 2018 Olympic medals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

South Korea would embark on a "difficult but meaningful challenge" in seeking to have a tranquil Games with North Korea participating, he said in a speech.

If North Korean athletes fail to qualify, Olympic officials have said they will consider wild-card entries for North Korean athletes to encourage the country to participate. A plan to have a delegation of North Korean athletes and officials march through the demilitarised zone to the Games as a peace gesture remains under consideration.

"Tensions are high now, but because of that, peace is all the more needed," Moon said.

"If the two Koreas come together at this point in time, it will become a great opportunity to send a message of reconciliation and peace to the world."

He added, "I do not think it is impossible." Chang Ung, an IOC delegate from North Korea, told the Olympic committee's online television channel in mid-September: "I am quite sure that politics is one thing and Olympics is another thing. So I don't see any big problem for the Pyeongchang Olympics."

The easiest route is for athletes from North Korea to qualify.

From mid-June through mid-August, the North Korean pair of Ryom, 18, and Kim, 25, trained in Montreal, refining their attempt to claim one of five Olympic spots available here at this week's Nebelhorn Trophy competition.

The skaters, their coach and a North Korean skating official spoke frequently about the Olympics, said Bruno Marcotte, a prominent French Canadian coach who worked with the pair.

"All the time they would ask me: 'Do you think we have a chance to qualify? Are we good enough? What do we need to qualify?'" Marcotte said of the pair, who aspire to become one of the world's top 10 teams.

"They didn't want to talk about politics," said Marcotte, who is also here assisting the North Koreans.

"It was all about sport and being the first ones in the Olympics and breaking barriers and doing their best."

It is a widely held feeling among South Korean politicians and Olympic officials, as well as some international athletes, that the Games would be safer with North Korea's participation, lessening security concerns and perhaps spurring slow ticket sales.

In that view, Kim Jong Un, the unpredictable North Korean leader, would be less likely to act provocatively if athletes from his country were competing in the Olympics, alongside those of China, North Korea's benefactor.

"It's kind of an insurance policy to have them there," said Ted Ligety, a two-time gold medalist in Alpine skiing from the United States.

Of course, there is no way to predict what the political situation will be on the Korean Peninsula in four months, when the Olympics take place about 40 miles from the demilitarised zone that separates North and South.

And there is no guarantee that North Korea will participate. It is not a winter sports power and did not compete at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. It also boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, the South Korean capital.

A general wariness seems to be encroaching on these Games. France has said its Olympic team will not travel to South Korea if its safety cannot be guaranteed.

Still, Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, has said there is "so far not even a hint" that security concerns related to North Korea threaten the Games. In any case, officials say it is too late to move the Olympics.

"There is no Plan B," said Anita DeFrantz, a vice president of the IOC from the United States.

Chang, the IOC delegate from North Korea, has said its athletes will also attempt to qualify for the Games in short-track speedskating and Nordic skiing, which includes cross-country events.

According to Reuters, North Korea has formally complained that international sanctions have interfered with its ability to purchase skiing equipment needed for training.

In April, North Korea sent its women's hockey team to play in South Korea. In June, it sent a taekwondo team. That month, South Korea's sports minister mentioned the possibility of fielding a combined hockey team in the Olympics and permitting North Korea to host an Alpine skiing event.

Those prospects seem unlikely now, South Korean Olympic and government officials said last week in New York.

"North Korea is my biggest worry," Choi Moon Soon, the governor of Gangwon province in South Korea, where the 2018 Olympics will take place, said in a recent interview.

"It's not because of North Korea making an impact on the Olympics, it's that if North Korea can participate, then it will make a great contribution for our goal of hosting a Peace Olympics, and it will be a great selling point."

If North Korea does compete, perhaps its most visible - and only - athletes will be Ryom and Kim. They finished 15th at the 2017 world figure skating championships in March with a style influenced by classic Russian efficiency and precise placement of the arms and head.

Dressed in silver and black costumes at training on Wednesday, the pair skated to an instrumental version of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life," as performed by Jeff Beck, which will provide a musical backdrop for Thursday's opening performance.

The issue can be culturally sensitive. At the world championships, the North Koreans ended a brief interview with The Associated Press when asked how they had chosen the Beatles' music.

On Wednesday, Ryom and her partner, Kim, appeared smiling though slightly nervous during practice. ("Trying to be too much," Marcotte said.)

Still, they received polite applause from the four dozen or so people who watched them train at the Eissportzentrum in this Alpine village with bell cows in the pastures and snow dusting the highest peaks.

It is not uncommon for pairs skaters to have an artistically stressed relationship, and as Marcotte put it, a coach can sometimes be more of a marriage counsellor. But the North Koreans remained unfailingly upbeat during their summer training, he said. And they even made kimchi, a staple dish, for a South Korean pair that he also trained.

"I think there is a will for friendship, a will for peace," Marcotte said of the skaters.

"They were so driven and so positive. I didn't expect that. They were sponges. They wanted to learn so badly."

Ryom and Kim will be under enormous scrutiny and pressure this week to qualify for the Olympics. But they also appear confident, Marcotte said.

Ri Chol Un, an official with the North Korean figure skating association, said the pair might even speak to reporters Friday after the pairs competition ends.

"As long as it's about figure skating," he said.

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