SEOUL (AFP, Korea Herald/Asia News Network, NYTimes) - A North Korean delegation arrived in South Korea on Sunday (Jan 21) to check the venues for its proposed art performances at next month's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, officials in the South said.
The seven-member team is led by Ms Hyon Song Wol, head of the North's Samjiyon Orchestra, and known as one of the most influential women in the secretive communist nation, reported Yonhap news agency.
Hyun also serves as director of the Moranbong Band, the country's well-known all-female musical group, reportedly created at the order of leader Kim Jong Un.
Asked about her impression of the trip here by a pool reporter of the Ministry of Unification press corps, she just smiled and did not give an answer.
Hyon and her delegation members were tightly guarded by South Korean police and state intelligence officials, with an army of local and foreign media crowding the station to cover their visit, according to Yonhap.
The delegation crossed the land border via the Gyeongui Line for a two-day trip, becoming the first North Koreans to travel to the South since the Moon Jae In administration took power in May last year.
The delegation then boarded a train to Gangwon province, where the Olympics will be held from Feb 9-25.
It is also the first time that the inter-Korean route has been used since the shutdown of the Kaesong joint industrial park in early 2016.
Several South Korean officials greeted the North Koreans at the customs, immigration and quarantine (CIQ) office at Dorasan Station, just south of the border.
North Korea plans to send a 140-member art performance group, consisting of an orchestra, singers and dancers, for concerts in Seoul and Gangneung.
The North Korean delegation's arrival came a day later than originally planned by the two Koreas.
In the high-level talks on Jan 15, the North had agreed to send the delegation Saturday, and confirmed the plans at 10 am Friday.
However, at about 10 pm on Friday, the North informed the South that the delegation would not be sent, without elaborating.
South Korea's Ministry of Unification on Saturday requested an explanation on Saturday, and informed the North that Seoul intends to follow the plans agreed to in the high-level talks.
The North responded later in the day that the delegation will be sent on Sunday, on a two-day schedule. Pyongyang is said to have provided no explanations about the last-minute changes on Saturday.
But the North's official Korean Central News Agency hinted at the source of its anger by lashing out at conservatives in South Korea who have argued that the North's Olympic participation could violate United Nations sanctions.
There "are dishonest things seriously chilling the dramatic atmosphere for the north-south reconciliation created by the great magnanimity and the initiative steps taken" by the North, the news agency said, urging South Korean authorities to address the problem.
In an apparent move to soothe Pyongyang, South Korean officials appealed on Saturday to local news outlets, asking them not to carry speculative articles or dwell too much on controversial aspects of the North's participation in the games.
President Moon, who lobbied for the North's participation in the games well before Pyongyang agreed to it this month, has said it will help ease the tensions that have built up on the peninsula during the past year over the North's nuclear and missile tests.
But Moon's critics, including much of South Korea's generally conservative media, have argued that the North will use the Olympics as a propaganda opportunity, to try to weaken international resolve over enforcing sanctions against the North for its nuclear programme.
South Korean officials have insisted they would ensure that the North Korean delegates kept political propaganda out of their activities in the South.
But the musicians and other performers being sent by Pyongyang, like any North Korean artist allowed to appear overseas, will have been well-trained in propagandizing for the country's authoritarian regime.
In another related development, North Korea agreed on Sunday (Jan 21) to South Korea's plan to send an advance team later this week to its ski resort in preparations for joint training ahead of the upcoming Pyeongchang Olympics, an official here said.
Last week, the South's government proposed sending a 12-member team to the Mount Kumgang area and Masikryong Ski Resort in the North's eastern region in a three-day programme beginning Tuesday (Jan 23).
The two Koreas plan to hold a joint cultural event in the Mount Kumgang area, and their skiers will train together at the ski compound for the Olympic games to open on Feb 9.